Monday, January 7, 2008
Coleman Dowell photographed by Carl Van Vechten
In school my teacher, Warren Hecht, recommended I read the novels of Coleman Dowell: Island People (American Literature Series (Reprint of 1976 ed)). Too Much Flesh and Jabez. The Houses of Children (American Literature (Dalkey Archive)). Mrs. October Was Here. White on Black on White. At this time Dowell's first published novels were relatively new, recently published. My first association w/ Dowell is from this time & w/ such a relatively primitive attachment as my talisman, a vague nostalgia for misspent youth, I still associate the books as some sort of secret to those early years of my life.
In all honesty I did not read Dowell all that seriously until a few years later, in New York. Bomb magazine published 2 fragments of memoirs which were later published in the book A Star-Bright Lie. As I understand it now, the memoir may not be all that "accurate" although what distinguishes it may not be the successes or failures noted so much as the tone, the atmosphere, the feeling - like his fiction which as linear narrative is disorienting, yet in such fragmentation so much is revealed nevertheless. Coleman Dowell's memoirs aren't necessarily the letter of the law of facts so much as a great tale being told. In Edmund White's memoir of Dowell fantastical meals are described as are late night long elaborate conversations. Late at night seems to be the most appropriate time for any of Dowell's stories Again more associations: secrets, night, late.
The chapter about Carl Van Vechten has a great deal of fascination for me. Van Vechten was a name I associated w/ my paperback of Gertrude Stein, only. In Dowell's memoir Van Vechten emerges as an irascible social puppeteer, a scatological bad boy (with the emphasis on bad - mocking, rude, cutting) along the lines of the figure of Lord Merlin, who is in 2 of Nancy Mitford's books, The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels: An omniscient older sort, who is as socially and artistically well connected as an arriviste such as Dowell is not. A diabolical art-father. (my comparison between Coleman Dowell & Nancy Mitford is strictly in terms of the archetype of such a surrogate father figure - I can't think of 2 writers w/ less in common, otherwise). The memoir brings up figures who now seem quite forgotten, such as Dagmar Godowsky (author of her own rather fanciful memoir, First Person Plural), and bits of catty gossip (why is Gloria Vanderbilt nicknamed "Ears"?), along with accounts of social ambitions, intrigues, and other diabolical associations. To be honest the memoir is remarkable in how thoroughly downbeat it is, even if it is written in prose that is magical in its phrasing, its wit, as well as it's ability to explore the petty & the dark.
& what I learned from this as well is that Carl Van Vechten was a prodigious photographer & devoted several years to photographing his amazing acquaintanceships with writers, actors, singers, ballerinas, models, et al in a homemade studio in his apartment on Central Park West, that there are literally thousands of images by him, printed in postcard sizes, 8x10, & 11x14, usually marked by a blind stamp. The photos are readily available still on Ebay, which is where I found a print of Coleman Dowell, the same image that appears on the cover of A Star-Bright Lie. The seller knew who Van Vechten was, but had no idea as to the identity of the sitter. Curious.
Keith Davis wrote a short book about Van Vechten's portraits for the Hallmark Collection, The Passionate Observer: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten. The collection is now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Van Vechten's photographic techniques were not strong & the prints can vary wildly in terms of surface. Likewise as a diligent amateur the images are not all that consistent - one can find the remarkable as well as the banal, visually. What does inform the images is the enormity of the archive as well as the variety of sitters. The Davis book ends with biographies of the sitters - their identities are part of the fascination with the work. This is a bit of the obverse of a photographer such as August Sander's portraits which are intended to be of "types" although one can find remarkably accomplished, famous people in such roles (Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Dix, for example). Van Vechten's portraits are DIY glamor shots of very distinct characters, akin to say Victorian cabinet cards or carte-de-visites of actors, beauties, celebrities. Although intended perhaps more as bit of private glamor, the images now have another life as a remarkable document of the artistic social orbits of New York City after World War II, especially Van Vechten's support of African-American artists as well as what was not perhaps identified directly at the time but what amounts to a great gay subculture.
I treasure my image of Coleman Dowell, which isn't especially great, & the print is irregular, portions of it faded, but like any fetish for a person, it functions as something which touched the person, somehow, while alive. This brings up the much darker & more irrational uses of photography, as a kind of totem of connection, or desire, a cult object - or is that a cargo cult object?