“The tremendous development of the camera in recent years has been remarkable. Now almost anyone can take the pictures, and most of them are doing it. But it is rather like giving a 6 year old a pistol.” – Arnold Genthe
Arnold Genthe was a German-American photographer, best known for his photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and his portraits of noted people, from politicians and socialites to literary figures and entertainment celebrities. Born in 1942, he was born in Berlin, Prussia. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a classically trained scholar and received a doctorate in philology in 1894 from the University of Jena, where he knew artist Adolf Menzel, his mother’s cousin.
One of the best known American photographers of the early 20th century, Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) taught himself photography, experimenting with focus, retouching, and colour processes along the way after emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 to work as a tutor for the son of Baron and Baroness J. Henrich von Schroeder.
Through his explorations of the city, Genthe began to experiment with the camera, particularly in Tangrenbu, the Chinatown quarter of San Francisco. He was intrigued by the Chinese section of the city and photographed its inhabitants. He took hundreds of candid shots of street life with subjects ranging from residents, merchants, and children to gamblers and drug addicts. Many of these photographs are in and out of focus and from odd angles as Genthe had to photograph secretly, often waiting hours in an alley or doorway in order to snap the images inconspicuously. The residents of Chinatown would abandon the streets at the sight of the camera, actions that Genthe attributed to their fear of “the black devil box;” however, it might be better explained by their fear of deportation.
Genthe’s photographs of Chinatown street life from 1896 to 1906 are the only surviving photographic documentation of the area from before the 1906 earthquake. While Genthe’s studio and collection of plates and cameras were destroyed during the subsequent fire, approximately 200 negatives of his Chinatown photographs had recently been transferred to a bank vault and were undamaged. Following the destruction of his studio, Genthe borrowed a hand held camera and photographed the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. These photographs from his San Francisco period are among his most famous images.
One of the Chinatown photographs for which Genthe is so well known is an undated print of two children in imperial costume in front of a vase shop. A cropped reproduction of this photograph appears in his memoir As I Remember; however, the full image reveals the cobblestones of the street to the right and one of San Francisco’s street cars. Genthe would often retouch his photographs, removing evidence of Western presence in Chinatown, such as signs in English or Caucasians on the streets.
After local magazines published some of his photographs in the late 1890s, he opened a portrait studio. He knew some of the city’s wealthy matrons, and as his reputation grew, his clientele included Nance O’Neil, Sarah Bernhardt, Nora May French, and Jack London. In 1904 he traveled to Western Europe and Tangier with the famous watercolorist, Francis McComas.
Within a short time, Genthe joined the art colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he fraternised with the literary elite. Here he was able to pursue his work in colour photography. Of his new residence, he wrote, “The cypresses and rocks of Point Lobos, the always varying sunsets and the intriguing shadows of the sand dunes offered a rich field for colour experiments.” Although his stay in Carmel was relatively short (1905–07), he was appointed in 1907 to the Board of Directors of the Art Gallery in Monterey’s luxury Hotel Del Monte, where he insured that the work of important regional art photographers, such as Laura Adams Armer and Anne Brigman, was displayed with his own prints.
In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Genthe’s studio, but he rebuilt. His photograph of the earthquake’s aftermath, Looking Down Sacramento Street, San Francisco, April 18, 1906, is his most famous photograph.
By the spring of 1907 he had established his residence and studio at 3209 Clay Street in San Francisco, where he continued to enjoy membership in the celebrated Bohemian Club, attend prominent society functions, display his own work, and pen newspaper reviews of photo and art exhibitions.
Genthe was also a successful portrait photographer, first in San Francisco, but most famously in New York, with an impressive clientele that included presidents, stars of stage and screen, socialites, and celebrities. Arriving in New York in 1911, he established a portrait studio at 562 Fifth Avenue.
From his early days of portraiture, Genthe was determined to create photographs of people with more “relation to life and to art than the stiffly posed photographs that gave the effect of masks behind which the soul of the subject was lost.” To avoid these posed photographs and capture more of the spirit and character of his subjects, he chose to photograph in an unobtrusive manner, without announcing to his subjects the exact moment the exposure was made. In doing so, Genthe sought to go beyond a “surface record” or “commonplace record of clothes and a photographic mask,” in an attempt to capture with the camera a human being’s essence.
An example of Genthe’s portrait style can be seen in his 1925 photographs of Greta Garbo as seen above. Shot in Genthe’s New York studio, this series of photographs are dark and dramatic portraits of Garbo early in her American career, emphasising her eyes and neck. Genthe credited his photographs of Garbo with launching the actress’s American career.
Being based in New York also allowed Genthe the opportunity to photograph the rising new art form of early modern dance. His subjects included some of the most influential figures in dance history from Isadora Duncan to Anna Pavlova.