Tag Archives: Carl Van Vechten

BILLIE, IN BETTER LIGHT

I’m glad that a number of my readers found the nearly-prurient Carl Van Vechten photographs of Billie Holiday equally disturbing.  I needed to put something in their place. 

Earl Hines told Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker Profile, “Sunshine always opens out,” his way of saying that good fortune eventually finds you, and today it found me in the shape of a pleasant email from Erik Svinding Olsen, alerting me to his Billie Holiday site — he’s been a devoted listener for more than fifty years now.  Erik’s site has a wonderful discography, among other pleasures, and although he doesn’t attempt to list every CD issue of every song (something that often results in pages of label / number listings for something like the Decca LOVER MAN) his discography contains recordings I had never heard of.  It’s clear and well-organized: you can search by date, by song, by musicians, etc.  I’ve listed his site on my blogroll: http://www.holiday.eriksol.dk/

Erik also told me about another site devoted to Miss Holiday, a site that I find frankly astonishing — for its photographs.  Most of the books devoted to Billie reproduce the same studies — often they are moody portraits with the inevitable gardenia.  But Mike Lubbers of the Netherlands, the Holiday-collector behind this enterprise has found more pictures of Billie than I had imagined . . . a few of them copies of newspaper clippings, and many of them still pictures from her appearances in SYMPHONY IN BLACK, NEW ORLEANS, film shorts and television shows. 

But there are more than twelve hundred photographs of Billie, beginning with a snapshot of her as a cheeful teenager on the beach at Coney Island and ending with photographs of the crowd at her funeral.  This trove can be found here: http://www.billieholiday.be/

I have contented myself with only a few photographs from this site — to not seem too greedy among Mike’s treasures — but they nearly offset the Van Vechtens for me.  If I have chosen a number of portraits (mostly candid) that show Billie alongside other famous musicians and singers, can you blame me? 

Here’s Billie the writer, presumably working on her “autobiography,” LADY SINGS THE BLUES, in June 1956. 

And a frankly posed shot, to make it seem as if she was earnestly blue-penciling her own galleys (or proofs?).  I couldn’t ignore it because of the Fifties prop: she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, the sure sign of the writer, the intellectual.  Editing your autobiography can’t be done without the proper plumage: in this case, sparkly dangling earrings.   

This somewhat grainy newspaper photograph is a relief . . . because it is in some way far more real.  Is it that Billie has asked Frank — who said he owed so much to her singing — for his autograph?  Whatever the story, this photograph was taken, or published, on May 26, 1944.

I have no fondness for any of Billie’s men, who seem to have treated her poorly, but at least she looks happy here with Louis McKay, in May 1954. 

A candid photograph taken at the home of Billie and Louis McKay, December 1951.  If it’s caution, wariness, or skepticism in her sideways glance and slightly raised eyebrow, she looks far more relaxed, even girlish, than she ever did under Van Vechten’s gaze.

Billie with a happy Count Basie in July 1948, during their appearances at the Strand Theatre in New York City. 

A very hip trio in Billie’s dressing room, September 1949.  Does Billie’s dog know who’s there?  Of course!  (Louis loved dogs.)  Billie looks as if she is just about to burst into laughter — always a happy sight. 

In December  1945, at the Onyx Club — from left, Sarah Vaughan (travelling in fast company), Louis, Billie, and someone whose face is vaguely familiar but elusive.  At ease, even when assembled for a “candid” photograph and facing a flashbulb.

Billie at Orly Airport in Paris, November 1958.  Again, it’s a posed photograph, with a good deal of failed “spontaneity” in the artificial tilt of her head and the rather forced smile — but she looks more at ease than we would have expected.

I wouldn’t call them old friends — late in life, Teddy Wilson insisted that he would have preferred another girl singer, Beverly “Baby” White, for those awe-inspiring Brunswicks and Vocalions — but they certainly had a long association.  By this time, Teddy no longer wanted to be anyone’s sideman, and Billie may have found his precision a bit restrictive, but here they are at the first Newport Jazz Festival on July 18, 1954.  (Many more pictures exist of this pair at this concert.)

Another pianist worthy of our attention: Billie and Art Tatum, taken at the Downbeat Club in December 1946.  (Photographs of Tatum are rare, and I thought he and Billie were captured only at the Metropolitan Opera House jam session in 1944.)  Tatum seems unfazed by the ornamentation atop Billie’s hat, and that the photographer has posed them outside of the Ladies’ — but we have to catch our legends where we may.

Something else I didn’t know: that Billie and Lester had appeared at a series of outdoor New York City concerts in July 1957.  Lester looks dubious, Billie guarded, but I hope it’s nothing more than that they were trading bad stories about the promoter or one of the sidemen.  It would break my heart if they were glaring at each other.

Since Billie has often been presented as an iconic figure of sadness, of self-destruction, I thought I would conclude with two photographs where she looks unaffectedly happy, not posing at being happy for someone’s camera.  If you didn’t know she was the famous “doomed” artist, would you see it in her strong, amused face?  This shot was taken at a session for Verve (or Clef?) in June 1956. 

Late in her life — December 1958 — but taking her ease at Tony Scott’s house. 

Heartfelt thanks to Erik Svindling Olsen, to Mike Lubbers, to Billie Holiday and all the people who love her and treat her properly, even fifty years after her death.

BILLIE HOLIDAY, SEEN

Most photographs of Billie Holiday show her as beautiful, whether thin or overweight, dressed ornately or plainly.  Often she looks mournful.  Of course it is hard to say what her unposed expressions were like.  Did the photographer ask her to strike a pose, or to think of STRANGE FRUIT?  I prefer to recall a 1935 photograph by Timme Rosenkrantz, outside, with Ben Webster and others.  Billie wears a summer dress, looks sweetly young, glad to be alive among friends.     

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) told me that the Beinecke Library at Yale University seems to have thrown open the doors of its photography collection online.  If you enter “jazz” or “blues” as a keyword in the search engine, riches cascade onto your monitor.  But they have the power to make me deeply uncomfortable.   

Most of the photographs were taken by Carl VanVechten, who was fascinated by jazz musicians, but primarily by women — singers (Billie, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Chippie Hill, Lil Green, Lizzie Miles, Gladys Bentley, Thelma Carpenter as a Seminole Indian) and dancers (Pearl Primus).  They show a good deal of dramatic planning and staging, with costumes, a formal studio, elaborate props, poses from iconic to sordid. 

Yes, there are pictures of W.C. Handy, Tiny Bradshaw, Josh White, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and even Rudi Blesh . . . but Van Vechten was nearly obsessed by Ethel Waters — photographing her as Carmen; by Bessie Smith, in 1936, in a variety of poses; and perhaps most by Billie Holiday.

I can’t reproduce the photographs, although readers are allowed to view and save them.  Anything else requires the permission of the photographer’s estate and no doubt of the subject’s as well.

The color photographs of Billie, from 1949, give me pause. 

In one set, she is wearing a lavender dress with red trim, next to a vase of showy pink flowers.  In another, Van Vechten has her wearing a black velvet gown; she looks far-away and sad.  In yet another set, she is apparently naked from the waist up: her arms crossed over her breasts, anything buy happily erotic.  In the first of the series, she looks away from the camera; we see a scar on her face; her red lipstick is garish; in the next, she attempts to look casual; in the last of the series, where she is once again looking away from the camera, her face is wounded, her expression that of a soul in pain.  These three portraits are hard to look at; did the photographer sense her distress, or did she say that those three were enough, that she was no pinup girl?  They seem to me to be intrusive, near-violations, even even if Van Vechten thought he was portraying her lovingly, ceebrating her unmistakable erotic appeal.

There are many black-and-white studies, but (as if to compensate for the painful exposure) many are many of Billie with her boxer, Mister — where both she and the dog are happy, affectionate, at their ease, sharing unconditional love and tenderness.   

The Beinecke collection can be viewed here:  

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/

and the Billie portraits can be accessed here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2022461&iid=1091648&srchtype=

It is a record of a photographer deeply absorbed by his subjects, often revering them, sometimes exposing them for the sake of his lens.  I believe that I am glad all these photographs exist, but I am not sure.