Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880. As the youngest son of a successful banker a mother who was a patron of the arts, he grew up in a liberal and sophisticated household. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1903, taking a job in journalism due to his interest in writing. In 1906 he moved to New York and began writing for the New York Times, taking on more and more of the arts assignments. In 1913 he met Mabel Dodge, a wealthy patron of the arts, and through her met the leading artists and intellectuals of the time, including Alfred Steiglitz, Marsden Hartley, Gertrude Stein, and Emma Goldman.
Between 1915-1920 Van Vechten wrote several books of critical essays on various topics in the arts. In the 1920s he moved on to writing fiction, publishing several novels that were critical and financial successes. During this period, Van Vechten discovered Harlem and spent a great deal of time there enjoying its diverse cultural and artistic offerings. This began Van Vechten's lifelong interest and championing of the African-American arts and people.
In 1932 Van Vechten moved on to a new career, from novelist to photographer. While he had always been interested in photography, it was the introduction of the new Leica camera, portable and using the inexpensive 35 mm film, that caused him to take photography seriously. Van Vechten took thousands of photographs on all subjects, but his favorite subject, and the one he is most known for, is portraiture. Many of the portraits by Van Vechten are of friends and acquaintances in the arts world in which he moved. Because of his interest and friends in Harlem, Van Vechten took many photographs of notable African-Americans, documenting an important part of early 20th-century American history ignored and neglected by others.
Van Vechten's photographic career lasted until his death in 1964 at the age of 83. He created more than 15,000 photographs during his career, attempting to chronicle the artistic world of his time. By the time he started his photographic career Van Vechten was financially secure and never had to worry about commercial success. It was only after Van Vechten's death that a serious market for art photography was established; thus Van Vechten was able to pursue his own interests and personal aesthetic.