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Arnold Genthe

Time Period: 
1911-1940
Location: 
San Francisco; Manhattan
Biography: 

(1869-1942)

Trained as a classical philologist at the University of Jena, German-born photographer Arnold Genthe, after completing a doctorate on Lucan, took a year's employment as a tutor in San Francisco. He became enamoured of the city, took up photography, and ventured into Chinatown to capture on film its distinctive features and folkways using a hidden camera. The success of these images prompted him to open a photographic studio.

Genthe's culture, cosmpolitanism, and charm made him a welcome presence in the city's elite social scene and his business proved successful. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed his studio and most of his early work. But his photographs of the destroyed city became the most eloquent visual momument to the city's crisis. At various points in his career, he would make a prolonged visit to a locale and attempt to capture visually the genius of a place. He portrayed Japan, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Greece in this manner. Yet these pictorial vacations did not support him.

He returned dissatisfied with the artistic possibilities that running a studio on the West Coast afforded. His decision to move to New York in 1911 was driven by a conviction that his access to the editorial offices of the national magazines would give him the opportunity to support himself by illustrations as well as portraits. He also wished to be at the center of the artistic ferment in the world of dance which had become his fascination.

Because of his innovative work with autochrome color processes, he made an immediate splash in New York's photographic and publishing worlds. An articulate man with exquisite taste, he quickly installed himself in New York's artistic circles, providing illustrations for poetry books, and befriending the various dancers of the city. Because of his unbending artistic principles, he elicited respect from a broad range of photographers, and his work was collected by the notoriously prickly Alfred Stieglitz. His portrait studio enjoyed a booming business; so much so, that he often declined to shoot persons wishing a sitting. He enjoyed photographing theater and film personalities, particularly those with classically beautiful features. He organized his business so that half of his revenue came from portrait sittings, the other half from magazine and book illustration.

He published several books during his lifetime, including two illustrated autobiographies. His estate was purchased by the Library of Congress. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Arnold Genthe won international fame as a pictorialist who in his portraiture captured the unposed moment of personal expression. He pioneered spontaneous shooting in studio situations. His dance photography remained pictorial in its envelope of shadow, mist, and mystery, but were shot with the highest speed shutters and films available to capture the instant of gesture. He preferred to shoot dancers improvising works rather than performing choreography. His theatrical portraiture swathed sitters in mystique, sometimes at the expense of accurate depiction of features. He preferred not to portray moments of passionate expression, rather contemplative poses by solitary figures. Absolutely convinced of the aesthetic rightness of his work, he would prohibit cropping and editorial intervention in the publication of his images.