Arnold Genthe

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Arnold Genthe's self-portrait

Arnold Genthe (January 8, 1869 – August 9, 1942) was a German-born American photographer, best known for his photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and his portraits of noted people, from politicians and socialites to literary figures and entertainment celebrities.


Left: Genthe photographing Jack London and friends in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Right: The resulting photograph.

Arnold Genthe was born in Berlin, Prussia, to Louise Zober and Hermann Genthe, a professor of Latin and Greek at the Graues Kloster (Grey Monastery) in Berlin. Genthe followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a classically trained scholar; he received a doctorate in philology in 1894 from the University of Jena, where he knew artist Adolf Menzel, his mother's cousin.

Caricature of Arnold Genthe by Cuban artist Conrado Massaguer
Autochrome nude study
Portrait of Audrey Munson with Genthe's cat, Buzzer (1915)

After emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 to work as a tutor, he taught himself photography. He was intrigued by the Chinese section of the city and photographed its inhabitants, from children to drug addicts, Due to his subjects' possible fear of his camera or their reluctance to have pictures taken, Genthe sometimes hid his camera. He also sometimes removed evidence of Western culture from these pictures, cropping or erasing as needed. About 200 of his Chinatown pictures survive, and these comprise the only known photographic depictions of the area before the 1906 earthquake.

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 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.

Within a short time, Genthe joined the arts colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he was able to pursue his work in color 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 color experiments." [1]

In 1911 he moved to New York City, where he remained until his death of a heart attack in 1942. He worked primarily in portraiture, and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and John D. Rockefeller all sat for him. His photos of Greta Garbo were credited with boosting her career. He also photographed modern dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, and his photos were featured in the 1916 book, The Book of the Dance.


Genthe was an early adopter of the autochrome color photography process. He began experimenting with the process in 1905 in Carmel, California.[2] He claimed credit for the first exhibition of color photographs in America; later scholars determined this is not accurate, but he was undoubtedly one of the earliest.[3] His subjects included portraits, artistic nudes, and landscapes.[3]

Genthe's cat[edit]

Genthe owned a cat called Buzzer. Buzzer often appeared in portraitures with Genthe's subjects, most notably Broadway actresses to whom the cat warmed. One such sitting in autochrome was with actress Ann Murdock.


  • Text by Will Irwin, images by Arnold Genthe, Pictures of old Chinatown. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1908
  • Arnold Genthe, The Book of the Dance, Boston, Mass.: International Publishers, 1920, c. 1916
  • Arnold Genthe, foreword by Grace King, Impressions of Old New Orleans, New York: George H. Doran Co., c. 1926
  • Arnold Genthe, Isadora Duncan: Twenty Four Studies, New York: M. Kennerley 1929; reprinted by Books for Libraries, 1980 ISBN 0-8369-9306-3
  • Arnold Genthe, As I remember, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, c. 1936
  • Arnold Genthe, Highlights and Shadows, New York: Greenberg, c. 1937
  • Arnold Genthe, selection and text by John Tchen, Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown, New York: Dover Publications. 1984 ISBN 0-486-24592-6
  • William Bronson, "The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned," Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1959; many images of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 taken by Arnold Genthe



  1. ^ Harold and Ann Gilliam, Creating Carmel, The Enduring Vision, pp. 89-90, Peregrine Smith Books, 1992
  2. ^ Shields, Scott. Artists at Continent's End: the Monterey Peninsula Art Colony, 1875-1907. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 196ff. 
  3. ^ a b Wood, John (1993). The Art of the Autochrome: The Birth of Color Photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. pp. 46–48. 

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