New-York Historical Society

Beyond “A Photographic Mask”: An Introduction to Arnold Genthe

This post was written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Arnold Genthe, self portrait

Arnold Genthe, self portrait

One of the best known American photographers of the early 20th century, Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) taught himself photography, experimenting with focus, retouching, and color processes along the way. Trained as an academic in his native Germany, it wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco as a tutor in 1895 that he developed an interest in photography. Through his explorations of the city Genthe began to experiment with the camera, particularly in Tangrenbu, the Chinatown quarter of San Francisco. He took hundreds of candid shots of streetlife 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 streetlife 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.

Two children in imperial costume, PR 19, Box 2, Folder 9

Two children in imperial costume, PR 19, Box 2, Folder 9

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.

Greta Garbo, 1925, PR 19, Box 5, Folder 32

Greta Garbo, 1925, PR 19, Box 5, Folder 32

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.

Single Dancer, in the style of Isadora Duncan, PR 19, Box 13, Folder 102

Single Dancer, in the style of Isadora Duncan, PR 19, Box 13, Folder 102

An example of Genthe’s portrait style can be seen in his 1925 photographs of Greta Garbo. Shot in Genthe’s New York studio, this series of photographs are dark and dramatic portraits of Garbo early in her American career, emphasizing 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, which will be explored in greater detail on the blog next month. Stay tuned!

 

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