Last Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in a convo, “Picturing Americans,” about Thomas Hart Benton as part of the opening festivities for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Opening Reception (one of several!)
Thinking about Benton’s relationship to Hollywood and parallels with my research on Carl Van Vechten revealed an interesting thread via the director King Vidor. Benton went to Hollywood in 1937 on assignment for LIFE magazine. Van Vechten had gone a decade earlier in 1927 to write a series of articles for Vanity Fair. Both of them found Hollywoodland fascinating and at times repulsive.
Thomas Hart Benton in 1935 by Carl Van Vechten
Van Vechten helped to catalyze the production of all-black cast musicals in the late 1920s. His infamous 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, was considered for adaptation but this never came to pass. Talks with Vidor eventually led to his making the 1929 film, Hallelujah!, one of the first all-black cast feature films. Vidor admired Benton’s work and later purchased one of his paintings, The Negro and Alligator (1927) in the 1940s.
All three held complex views of African Americans that ranged from egregious stereotype to genuine admiration and empathy. All, of course, were the product of their times where the black vogue and jazz craze coexisted with the second heyday of the Klan, lynchings, and race riots. (Doesn’t sound much different from 2015, does it!?)
“American Epics” is a great exhibition and I had the chance to look at my research from a new angle. Win-win!
Writer’s block was conquered and a decent draft of chapter 1 is complete. Summer is off to a good start.
This photograph Marlene Dietrich wearing her tuxedo from Morocco (1930) and this sketch by the Hollywood costume designer Travis Banton didn’t make it into the chapter so I thought I would share them here.
Viva deco dandies in tuxes!
Afrochic now, done right: Lupita Nyong’o by Christian McDonald for Vogue magazine.
I am supposed to appear as a talking head in this documentary about black photography.
Epic Documentary is First Film to Examine the Role of Black Photographers in Shaping Identity of African Americans from Slavery to the Present
Award-winning filmmaker/director/producer Thomas Allen Harris’ recently completed documentary film, THROUGH A LENS DARKLY: BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLE, will make its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. This epic film, about contemporary artists and scholars probing the recesses of the American dream by interrogating images of stories suppressed, forgotten and lost, is the first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity, aspirations and social emergence of African Americans from slavery to the present. The film brings to light previously hidden and largely unknown images by both professional and vernacular African American photographers which add to our understanding of history by providing a window into lives, experiences and perspectives of Black families that is absent from the traditional historical canon.
“My whole team and I are extremely excited and humbled by this honor,” says Thomas Allen Harris. “Inspired by the work of our co-producer Deborah Willis, this project has been ten years in the making. We’re looking forward to audiences experiencing this incredible content, much of which has never been seen before.”
By Tiffany Mott-Smith
Queer Fashion History Exhibit: The Museum at FIT, 2013
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Queer Fashion History Symposium. I spent six and half hours preparing for this event. Three minutes checking in with my editor for the event, 55 minutes looking for my press badge, two minutes watching my boifriend find my press badge hanging from my doorknob, 30 minutes dropping off my favorite pair of boots at Phillips Shoe Repair, 30 minutes spilling the tea with my favorite shoe repairman’s wife, 30 minutes re-adhering crystals to my favorite pair of boots, four hours deciding on approximately three outfits to match my favorite pair of boots. In case you are wondering, yes dear, these boots are everything!
Arriving at the symposium with my boots and badge in tow, I scanned the room with an immediate furrowed brow. I had imagined wild hair under elaborate chapeaus, statement necklaces and new romantic inspired street fashion. Instead I saw almost exclusively plain shoes, muted colors and dulled accessories- perhaps foreshadowing the day to come.
This costume seems to be part of an intriguing project that I likely won’t get to in my book this go-around, alas.