Exhibition opening of “Visions of Beauty: Arnold Genthe and the Art of Photography”

In conjunction with an article on Arnold Genthe’s pioneering work and prominent career as portrait photographer published on the Immigrant Entrepreneurship website, the GHI is hosting an exhibit featuring twenty reproductions of Genthe’s photographs. The copies were acquired from the vast Genthe collection at the Library of Congress and the California Historical Society. 

As part of the well-attended opening event on February 25, the curator of the exhibit, Marina Kaneti, delivered a lecture on Genthe’s multifaceted understanding of beauty and the various ways in which Genthe uniquely captured beauty in an extraordinary variety of subjects and compositions. True to his intellectual and artistic upbringing in Hamburg, Jena, and Berlin, Genthe’s photography was influenced, on the one hand, by Hegel’s aesthetics, particularly Hegel’s understanding of art as a unique representation of the free spirit. On the other hand, Genthe’s artistic vision, eye for composition, and subject line closely resembled the work of his mentor and distant relative, the renowned German painter Adolf Menzel.

Invariably, Genthe’s ability to capture beauty – be that the movement of a dancer, a facial expression, or a field sprinkled with ruby-red poppies – also reflected his unique skill and ingenious technique known as the Genthe style. Guided by the principle “to never to permit the sitter to be conscious of the exact moment when the picture is being taken, be it in the studio or out of doors,” Genthe was not only able to capture something of the real character and personality of his sitters, but also became “the first professional photographer to give people portraits that were more than mere surface records.” Much of his technique was developed during his early attempts at photography when, fascinated with San Francisco Chinatown, Genthe would spend countless hours waiting for the right combination of lighting and people-composition to occur. A number of Genthe’s Chinatown photographs are on display at the GHI.

In addition to spiritual radiance and nobility of features, which he captured in many of his portraits, Genthe saw beauty in the graceful freedom of movement. Most prominently, he associated such type of beauty with the development of modern dance. In modern dance, particularly the artistic vision and ground-breaking work of Isadora Duncan and her students, Genthe saw the birth of an authentic American artistic tradition. Meticulously, in the course of three decades, he saw and recorded with his camera the blossoming of this artistic tradition. As a true artist, in his work on dance he was guided by the principle that “Unless a pose indicates the preceding as well as the following movement, be it rapid or slow, a suggestion of motion – fluent, dynamic, natural – cannot be conveyed.” The GHI was fortunate to have dancers Cynthia Word and Ingrid Zimmer of Word Dance Theater perform four dances in the style of Isadora Duncan during the exhibition opening.

The camera – Genthe remarked repeatedly – teaches us how to see. And as one may add: Genthe’s camera teaches us how to see beauty, and beauty is everywhere where there is a freedom of expression and movement. The exhibition “Visions of Beauty: Arnold Genthe and the Art of Photography” will be on view at the German Historical Institute until April 30 (opening hours Monday-Thursday 9-5 pm, Friday 9-3 pm).

Marina Kaneti, the exhibition’s curator

Cynthia Word of Word Dance