San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906

San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906

Arnold Genthe


In 1895, Arnold Genthe accepted an offer to work as a tutor for an affluent German-American family in San Francisco. In between tutoring responsibilities, he taught himself photography and began publishing some of his photographs in local magazines. By 1901, he had already become one of the most sought-after portrait photographers on the West Coast. His award-winning photographic landscapes and pictures would soon bring both domestic and international recognition.


At the age of nineteen, Arnold Genthe, an aspiring painter from a well-to-do Berlin family of intellectuals sought the advice and commendation of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century German painters and distant family relative—Adolf Menzel (1815-1905). Upon reviewing young Arnold’s sketches, Menzel was polite, but his remarks were nevertheless devastating and life-changing: “You have some talent, but it would be advisable for you to follow in the footsteps of your father and grandfather. You will paint, of course, but not for fame or profit.” The year was 1888. Genthe proceeded to enroll at the University of Jena where he received a Doctorate in Classical Philology. In 1894 he published his dissertation on the tenth-century codex of Lucan (De Lucani Codice Erlangensi) and travelled to Paris for post-doctoral studies in French literature and art at the Sorbonne.

In 1895 Genthe took an offer to work as a tutor for an affluent German-American family and sailed along with them to San Francisco. In between tutoring responsibilities, he taught himself photography and began publishing some of his photographs in local magazines. In 1897, Genthe decided to stay in America and explore his newly found passion for photography on a professional level. By 1901 he had already become one of the most sought-after portrait photographers on the West Coast, whose award-winning photographic landscapes and pictures would soon bring both domestic and international recognition.

The “Genthe style” not only secured commissions for portraits and landscapes from leading politicians, artists, and businessmen—from Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson; to Jack London, Greta Garbo, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Sarah Bernhardt; and John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan—but also greatly influenced the early artistic and professional development of many twentieth-century social and documentary photographers, including Dorothea Lange.[1]

Family Background

Arnold Genthe, the son of Louise Zober Genthe (?-1896) and Dr. Hermann Genthe (ca. 1838-1886), came from a long line of renowned scholars, writers, philosophers, and philologists, dating back to the sixteenth century.[2] Some of his notable predecessors included his great uncle Karl Rosenkranz (1805-1879), who was a direct disciple of Hegel and became the chair of Philosophy at the University of Konigsberg (previously held by Kant). The religious works of his Swiss granduncle, Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), were among Queen Victoria’s favorites. His paternal grandfather, Friedrich Wilhelm Genthe was “the author of some thirty books on philological and literary subjects.” His maternal grandfather, Hugo Zober, was a government architect in Prussia, and Adolph Menzel was his mother’s cousin. Arnold’s father was a professor of Latin and Greek and the founder of the Wilhelm Gymnasium in Hamburg.

Before obtaining his Doctoral degree in Philology at the age of twenty-five, Arnold Genthe himself had already published a unique study on German slang (1892: Deutsches Slang: Eine Sammlung familiärer Ausdrücke und Redensarten), as well as on previously unstudied correspondence between Hegel and Goethe (these appeared in the 1895 Goethe Jahrbuch).[3]

At the time of Arnold’s birth, on January 8, 1869, in Berlin, his father held an appointment as a professor of Latin and Greek at the Graues Kloster, Berlin. The three Genthe brothers—Arnold, Siegfried (1871-1904), and Hugo (1873-1896)—received superb classical educations and were greatly supported in the pursuit of any topics and interests that they might have had: “The library was the most lived room in the house. On its walls, reaching to the ceiling, and broken only by the wide fireplace, were rows and rows of books. …From the time I was eleven this room was the happiest retreat of my brothers and myself.”[4] As the children advanced in their language proficiency,[5] Dr. Hermann Genthe would take them on long walks along the banks of the Elbe River and converse with them on various subjects in Latin, English, and French. Later in life, before traveling to Japan, Mexico, and Greece, Arnold would ensure that he had sufficient proficiency in the language in order to converse with the local population.

Depending on Hermann Genthe’s academic appointments the family moved continuously; they last settled in Hamburg in 1880 when Arnold was eleven. It was in Hamburg—“a free city [that] had retained its spiritual and political liberty through all the centuries and its cosmopolitan independence of thought and liberality of outlook”—where Arnold felt his “life began to take shape.”[6] Arnold’s autobiographic reference to Hamburg as a free city that shaped his life and personality is by no means a casual reminiscence; rather, it provides an early glimpse into the deeply ingrained values and worldviews to which Arnold aspired throughout his life. Indeed, aspirations for political, cultural, and religious tolerance ran deeply in the Genthe tradition. Going as far back as the sixteenth century, the first Gents, followers of Martin Luther, had fled Holland during the times of Protestant reformation and religious persecution. As will be discussed later on, Arnold’s own decision to settle in the United States was informed by a similar aspiration to be in an environment that was most conducive to unhindered freedom of thought and action.

Furthermore, Arnold’s years in Hamburg were also formative in terms of his cosmopolitan worldviews and deep interest in various cultures and art forms. Under the influence of Professor Hans Lichtwark (1852-1914) and Dr. Justus Brinckmann (1843-1915), Arnold developed a deep appreciation for museums, pictures, and natural history, as well as for Japanese and Chinese art.[7] Lichtwark and Brinckmann’s classes would become central to Arnold’s outlook, vision, and understanding of the world because they

were voyages of discovery into our sensitiveness to beauty and capacity for appreciation. We learned how to look at pictures, not from the point of view of the instructor but through our own eyes according to our own reaction.[8]

These initial formative years and “voyages of discovery” were thus crucial for Arnold Genthe’s personal and professional development and—as will be discussed later on—provided the very basis for his bold vision and improbable, yet highly successful career as a photographer in the United States. Arnold’s association with Lichtwark in particular also greatly influenced his pursuit of photography and approach to photographic subjects.

Despite the strong political aspirations, intellectual roots, and scholarly tradition of the family, Arnold Genthe wanted to be a painter. One of his first memories of painting was from the time he was seven and experimenting with pencil, crayon, and watercolor. One day his mother saw him drawing “something quite unintelligible” and asked what it was. Genthe characterized his response as cubistic: “I don’t know yet whether it is going to be a bureau or Grandma.”[9] His mother encouraged his artistic aspirations, but in light of the strained family finances (Dr. Hermann Genthe unexpectedly passed away when Arnold was only seventeen) and Menzel’s authoritative assessment of his work, Arnold decided to follow the scholarly tradition of his father and grandfather. In 1888, he obtained a scholarship to pursue a Doctorate in Philology at the university in Jena.

Just as in Hamburg, the years in Jena would significantly shape Genthe’s philosophical outlook and orientation. During his university years, he was consistently exposed to the philosophical tradition of the “mandarin” and the ideas of the “new aristocracy of ‘cultivation’ (Bildung).”[10] Just like the Chinese litarati, the status of the “mandarin intellectual” was based on education, not privilege or wealth. Similarly, and particularly through his work, Genthe would follow the “mandarin’s” philosophical orientation, meaning that he would live by the principle that one

best serves humanity who cultivates his own spirit to the fullest possible extent; for the world has no purpose and reality itself, no meaning apart from the labor of the human mind and spirit. Compared to this work, everything else …is insignificant.[11]

Not coincidentally, in later years, strangers and acquaintances alike, would describe Genthe as glamorous and aristocratic, a philosopher and a gentleman, not because of wealth and business success, but precisely because of his manner of speech, poise, and intellectual bearing. Throughout his time in Jena, Arnold was similarly influenced by the high tradition of German aesthetics—and particularly Hegel’s theories on the power of beauty to reconcile matter and spirit.[12] This influence would strongly inform his association with pictoral photography and, as will be discussed further below, would lead to the bold introduction of a new photographic style—the “Genthe style.” Moreover, in Jena Arnold also pursued his previously developed interest in anthropology and the natural world and studies Darwin’s theories with the renowned biologist and naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). He credits Haeckel for a “lesson which was to be of significance in later years.” According to Genthe, Haeckel “never tired of impressing his pupils with the necessity of training the eye so that it would really see things.”[13] With Haeckel’s teachings in mind, Genthe would repeatedly argue for the importance of training the eye and introduce the simple, but powerful concept that “the camera teaches us how to see.”

Under the early influence of Brinckmann and Haeckel, Genthe would undertake many field trips throughout his life and engage in the study and photography of native customs and ancient traditions of various populations in different parts of the world. His sensitivity and openness to understanding other cultures would grant him access to reclusive and remote areas where no foreigners would typically be allowed. For example, his photographs of the Ainu population on the island of Hokkaido in 1908 are among the few comprehensive visual records of the Ainu available today. Although painting did not become his calling, it still remained his passion throughout his student years. During a year of exchange studies in Berlin, Arnold met with Menzel every week and often accompanied him on his sketching trips. Arguably, it was during this time when Arnold was exposed first hand to Menzel’s technique and outlook—both of which he would closely replicate in his own photographic work. Upon graduating, Arnold also pursued post-doctoral studies at the Sorbonne and, according to his autobiography, devoted several months to the study of Chinese and Japanese art treasures in the museums of Paris, London, and Berlin. Although not referenced in his autobiography, Jena was important in yet another way for Genthe’s future venture in the business of photography. From the very beginning, even when still a novice, with no prior experience and meager income, Genthe opted to purchase equipment using none other than the Jena-made photographic lens of Carl Zeiss.

A year after completing his studies in Jena and Paris, Arnold sailed to America in 1895, initially as a tutor for the ten-year-old son of Baron and Baroness J. Henrich von Schroeder. Baron von Schroeder had approached Arnold following the recommendation of his bothers who knew Arnold from the Wilhelm Gymnasium.[14] The twenty-six-year-old Arnold saw the offer as a propitious opportunity to postpone an immanent academic career life in Germany and a chance to experience the freedom “to pursue my way without being involved in things which were foreign to my nature.”[15] He left Germany with one suitcase, excited to experience, but with no intentions to settle in America. However, by 1897, when his tutoring job was about to end, his strongest connection to Germany—his family—had been profoundly severed. Both his mother and younger brother had passed away in the previous year (Hugo was trampled by an elephant while on assignment in Mozambique). His sole remaining close family member—Siegfried—was also away from Germany, working for the Cologne Gazette in the Middle East and Africa. With his family ties severed, Arnold’s choice was relatively easy:

I began to see clearly that teaching would never bring me the happiness I wanted. It was here I belonged, in this new country which had broadened my horizons, opened my eyes to a new conception of life and shown me a way to satisfy my desire for beauty. Having absorbed something of the American spirit of independence, I made my decision according to my own lights. I took the first step on my career as a portrait photographer. I started in search of a studio.[16]

Clearly enamored with the freedom and independence of San Francisco and America, Genthe not only decided to make his living in the new world, but would also not return to Germany after 1904.[17] Yet, he never separated from his German roots. Indeed, Herr Doctor, as his friends called him, considered himself San Franciscan, and was repeatedly listed in the San Francisco prestigious social register Our Society Blue Book, as well as in Men of the State of California. Yet, he did not change his nationality while residing in San Francisco but waited until 1918—long after he had moved to New York and after spending more than thirty years in the United States.[18]

Business Development

When the twenty-eight-year-old German scholar decided to support himself as a professional portrait photographer, he had no prior credentials or formal training in either photography or business ventures. Yet, his pictures—the embodiment of his upbringing and artistic vision—brought in an immediate success and following. Herr Doctor was regarded not only as “genius but a wizard, his photography most weird and magical” and, his studio—“a most unusual place—a little, genial museum of art presided over by a philosopher and a friend of ideas.”[19]

Judging from the quote above, it is easy to see how (despite Arnold Genthe’s prolific and immensely profitable career as a portrait photographer) very few of his contemporaries described him as a businessman. The various commentaries and writings about Arnold Genthe throughout the past century also focus exclusively on the artistic merits of his work and give little credence to his entrepreneurial skills and ability to sustain a successful career for over thirty years. Certainly the reason for such gap might be found in Genthe’s own predisposition to the subject. As he wrote:

Photography has never been for me a means of getting rich quick—or even slowly. Money has not meant enough for me to make a systematic effort to accumulate it. Making a picture has always interested me more than exploiting it…. appreciations of my work are of greater value and significance to me than gold medals and large checks.[20]

Yet, his unprecedented ability to “turn photography into an art with a business basis”[21] arguably hinged on a unique business strategy that underscored not only Genthe’s skills as a photographer, but also his thorough understanding of the opportunities and market potential in the business of photography. Some background information on San Francisco and photography at the fin de siècle can explicate the point.

San Francisco and Photography at the End of the Nineteenth Century

The San Francisco to which Genthe arrived in 1895 was the virtually unchallenged economic and financial capital of the Pacific Slope, controlling economic trade not only in the local Bay Area, but also the coastal trade from Panama to Alaska.[22] In addition to trade and finance, the city “had more manufacturing establishments, more employees in workshops, greater capitalization, larger value of materials, and higher value of products than all the other twenty-four western cities combined.”[23] The rapid growth of the city similarly reflected this great economic boom: the population of San Francisco jumped from 57,000 in 1860 to over 340,000 by 1890, making it the eighth largest city in the United States (See Table 1 San Francisco 1890-1910. Population census and registered photographers).[24]

San Francisco’s professional photographers were mainly engaged in family portraiture and landscape photography commissioned by state institutions. There were seemingly few barriers to entry in a budding new field: with the Kodak revolution (to be described further below), handheld cameras were increasingly affordable and amateurs were in style. The first Kodak camera (1888) was priced at $25 (approximately $714 in 2012),[25] a studio rent in San Francisco (1897) was also approximately $25, and membership in the local Camera Club provided additional access to photographic materials, literature, and equipment for picture developing. [26]

Yet, despite the relatively low upfront capital investment necessary and the relatively low competition, professional portrait photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century appeared to be an extremely challenging and impenetrable business. According to San Francisco’s statistical data, while between 1890 and 1900 the city population increased by over 40,000 people, the number of professional photographers increased by only 21 (from 53 in 1890 to 74 in 1900); in the following decade, particularly after the 1906 earthquake, the number of photographers fell below the 1890 levels (34 in 1906 and 51 in 1907).

Table 1. San Francisco 1890-1910. Population census and registered photographers
Year Photographers[27] Population[28]
1890 53[29] 298,997
1896 54
1897 64
1898 65
1900 74 342,782
1901 75
1902 82
1903 72
1904 84
1905 83
1906 34
1907 51
1908 71
1909 70
1910 68 416,912


Confirming the notion of impenetrability, both at the start of his career in San Francisco in 1897 and after moving to New York in 1911, Genthe received dire predictions that he would not last in the business. Only within a few minutes of glancing through Genthe’s photographs, the leading portrait photographer in San Francisco declared authoritatively: “Well, they may be art, but you will never be able to sell them. Take it from me, I’ve been in business here for twenty years and I know what I am talking about.”[30] Similarly, when moving to New York, his studio landlord was the first to warn him: “You won’t last a year. A photographer had the place for six months and he had to give it up because he could not make a go of it.”[31] Indeed, as will be discussed in some detail below, others before him, had received critical acclaim and raving reviews, but had been unsuccessful at turning a profit. Genthe’s conviction that there was a market for his innovative and daring work might have appeared to be the daydreaming of a novice. Yet, what could have been interpreted as the whimsical decision of a philology scholar enamored with the freedom and beauty of San Francisco was, in fact, a well-calculated and propitiously timed business decision. Genthe’s market entry in 1897 benefitted from two very significant turns in the field of photography that impacted both consumer audiences and photographers: i) unprecedented advances in technology (both picture taking and negative processing) and ii) the birth of an artistic movement that sought to establish photography as art. Each is briefly described below.

From Daguerre to Eastman Kodak – The Art of Industry

The first successful photographs, known as daguerreotypes, are attributed to the French innovator Louis J. M. Daguerre, who made his prototype public in 1893. Soon after, daguerreotype portraiture-making would become the staple item of those engaged in the photography profession. Only within the first fifteen years of Daguerre’s invention, there were more than thirty million daguerreotype portraits taken in the United States.[32]

Among the first, most avid consumers of daguerreotype portraits in California were the miners—a picture was a memento that could transcend the physical boundaries of separation and re-establish a sense of connectedness with families and loved ones. With a vast new consumer audience, photography held little or no appeal as a form of artistic expression, but became immediately popular as a commercial enterprise. The expansive Western territories, and the beautiful vistas of San Francisco in particular, held special appeal and drew in many practitioners of daguerreotyping from the East Coast. Genthe’s description of the San Francisco fog perhaps most poignantly captures the type of appeal that the San Francisco landscape held for so many photographers:

The San Francisco fog has never been sufficiently glorified. …The fogs [in San Francisco] are pure sea water condensed by the clean hot breath of the interior valleys and blown across the peninsula by the trade winds. They come in, not an enveloping blanket but a luminous drift, conferring a magic patina on the most common-place structures, giving them and air of age and mystery.[33]

Only few daguerreotypists, however, succeeded in establishing and running a long-lasting business—either as landscape or portraiture photographers; most would take on alternative occupations within a year of arrival.[34]

The combination of critical acclaim with poor business outcomes of one of Genthe’s early predecessors—Robert Vance (1825-1876)—is instructive of the difficulties in launching a successful photography business venture. Vance travelled to California during the Gold Rush years and set up a daguerreotype studio in San Francisco. In 1851, betting on the East Coast’s thirst for West Coast views, Vance travelled to New York and staged an unparalleled exhibit of daguerreotype views of California. Ostensibly, the exhibit was the earliest large showing of this kind in the United States and the world.[35] Nevertheless, despite the rave reviews from both critics and the general public, Vance could not generate a profit: there was much praise, but no private buyers. Vance was only able to sell the entire collection for $1,500 (real price[36] in 2012 of approximately $46,000) a year later (the total price of the venture was $3,700, or $115,000 in 2012 real price value).[37]

Two trends that marked Vance’s career highlight the intricacies of the business of photography. First, the variable success of Vance’s marketing strategies and the great divide between appraisal and profit-generating opportunities highlight the critical need for proper market and consumer audience positioning. Second, there was the tension between the artistic vision and the commercial appeal. Although Vance would call himself an artist, his main profit-generating platform was commercial lithography print-making houses that could reproduce his prints. The latter however were interested in daguerreotype images only to the extent that they responded to the new demand for realism rather than “fanciful views.”[38] In order to be commercially viable, the daguerreotype had to be realistic, not artistic. Challenged from all corners, photography at the time was simply “looked upon as the bastard of science and art, hampered and held back by the one, denied and ridiculed by the other.”[39] Those who would engage with it were often perceived as peddlers and charlatans.

Arguably, the charge against the artistic qualities of early photography had some merit. The daguerreotype, although exquisite in its ability to capture an image, had numerous drawbacks: it required extensive light, the exposure needed to last 15-20 minutes, thus contributing to the lifeless quality of the portraits and scenes, and most importantly from an industrial perspective—there was no possibility for reproduction as there was no negative, only an original type.[40] In 1839, improving on Daguerre’s invention, Samuel F.B. Morse and John W. Draper introduced a technique that allowed a picture to be taken in two, instead of twenty minutes. According to Genthe, Morse and Draper’s work in New York marks the beginning of photographic portraits, as their discovery would vastly diminish the need for “posing.”[41] By the late 1880s, using advances in chemistry, physics, and technology, scientists and innovators in both Europe and the United States were able to gradually improve and replace the 1839 discoveries (See Table 2: Stages in Photography Product Technology).

Table 2. Stages in Photography Product Technology[42]
Dominant Photosensitive carrier-base Business Development
1839-1855 Daguerreotype
1855-1880 Wet Collodion Market-oriented Anthony Company takes the lead in production of photographic supplies for professional photographers; emphasis on chemicals and treated paper
1880-1895 Dry gelatin on glass plates Gelatin allowed for the factory mass production of basic negative material; new companies, including Eastman enter the market
1895-1909 Gelatin on celluloid roll film Amateur photographer market; expansion of the market for both durable and consumable goods fostering the emergence of large-scale corporate enterprise; the Eastman Kodak Company takes the lead; by the early twentieth century it is transformed into a multinational firm
1909-1925 Cinematographic film Innovation comes outside the traditional leadership, but sustainability depends on the reliable supply of quality photosensitive film where Eastman Kodak has dominance

Source: Images and Enterprise, Jenkins [1987]

Most significantly, in the 1880s, George Eastman introduced a celluloid roll film-equipped hand camera called Kodak. As Kodak’s advertising slogan declared—“You press the button, we do the rest”—Eastman’s factory would develop the photos for its customers and reload the camera with another roll of film.[43]

Photography—both as a pastime and as a highly lucrative new industry—had entered a new era and the Eastman company succeeded in creating a mass amateur market both at home and abroad.[44] Within a few years, numerous firms flooded the market and sought to respond to Eastman’s challenge. The intense industry competition resulted not only in vastly improved methods for picture taking and processing, but also—mainly through the introduction of handheld cameras—made photography a most affordable activity for amateurs (See Table 3: Growth of Eastman Kodak and the Photographic Industry 1889 – 1909). To many such amateurs who would become leading professionals, “the lure of photography was its promise to wed the older ideals of art with the newer realities of science and industry.”[45]

Table 3. Growth of Eastman Kodak and the U.S. Photographic Industry
1889 1899 1904 1909
Eastman Kodak sales (millions of $) .5 2.3 5.1 9.7
U.S. Photographic industry Total sales (millions of $) 2.7 7.8 13.0 22.6
Eastman Kodak sales as % of all U.S. photographic sale 16.4 29.2 39.4 42.9
Frickey index[46] of US manufacturing production (1899 =100) 66 100 121 166
U.S Population (millions of persons) 61.8 74.8 82.2 90.5

Source: Image and Enterprise, Jenkins [1987], p. 178


Lichtwark, Stieglitz, and Oscar Wilde No. 18

In addition to the technological advancements that opened the field of photography to amateurs; the photography-as-art movement was given a powerful push by many leading intellectuals. The proponents of photography-as-art (known as pictoralists) argued against the commonly held perception that photography is a mechanical process and the photographer merely an operator of a machine. As with art, pictoral photographers claimed to be guided by the principles of composition, lighting, observation and feeling. And, as one of the European scholar and photographer, P.H. Emerson, wrote:

The originality of a work of art refers to the originality of the thing expressed and the way it is expressed, whether it be in poetry, photography, or painting. That one technique is more difficult than another to learn no one will deny; but the greatest thoughts have been expressed by means of the simplest technique, writing.[47]

Among the most active proponents of this new era of photography was one of Arnold Genthe’s teachers, Alfred Lichtwark. As director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Lichtwark was an avid promoter of amateur photography and strong believer that the best pictographic work is done by amateurs. In 1893 he organized the “First International Exhibition of Amateur Photographs” in Germany and established the Hamburg Society of Photo Amateurs. Through both venues he sought to promote the ideology of pictoral photography.[48] Although Genthe makes no reference to Lichtwark’s influence on his decision to turn to photography, the impact of Lichtwark is clearly visible in Genthe’s influential essay on photography “Rebellion in Photography” written in 1901, in which, similar to Lichtwark, he advocated for a new type of photography to be championed by amateurs with prior artistic training. In Genthe’s understanding, through “the absolute independence and iconoclastic energy of some enthusiastic amateur photographers, men and women, a fundamental change has been brought about in professional portrait photography.” Some of the important features of this new photography necessitated that the new breed of photographers take advantage of the technological improvements in photography; acquire understanding of the artistic principles as related to photography and chemistry, and—most importantly—“ruthlessly discard the cherished artistic traditions of the old-time photographer.”[49]

The leading champion of photography-as-art in the United States, Alfred Stieglitz, pursued a strategy similar to Lichtwark’s and Genthe’s. Born in the US, Stieglitz’s parents decided to travel back to Germany and enrolled their five children in German schools. Upon graduating from Realgymnasium in Karlsruhe, Alfred initially intended to study engineering, but instead turned to the study of photography under the guidance of the renowned chemist H.W. Vogel. Incidentally, the training in chemistry did not go to waste. It allowed Stiegltiz to develop superb knowledge of the photographic process—both picture-taking and picture-developing—a knowledge that was essential for promoting the cause of photography-as-art. Thus, immediately upon his return to New York in 1890, Stieglitz became an outspoken promoter of amateur photography, writing essays, delivering speeches and distributing pamphlets. He became the editor of the American Amateur Photographer in 1893 and later on established two of the most influential publications in the field of photography—Camera Notes and Camera Work. In 1902 Stieglitz organized a national photography exhibit called “The Photo-Secession”—the name was indicative of the advent of a new style in photography and the photographers’ revolt against old techniques and lack of artistic expression.[50] In 1905, Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries at 291 Fifth Avenue where he exhibited experimental work by photographers, painters, and sculptors from both Europe and the United States.

The rebellion that intellectuals such as Lichtwark, Stieglitz, and Genthe advocated for, sought to establish photography’s potency as art, as a medium equally powerful in expressing artistic inspiration and creating aesthetic vision. However, the uphill battle in positioning photography as art had not only artistic-aesthetic, but also legal-juridical and business dimensions. Daguerreotypes, cartes des visites, and cabinet cards were in high demand because they were regarded as images that are close representations of the truth; they were not appraised on the basis of their artistic potential. Even in the twentieth century, alluding to the fact that the lens (in French “objectif”) is the basis of photography, the film critic Andre Bazin would most famously synthesize a popular view that “the originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography.”[51] Unsurprisingly, beyond their function as family mementos, photographic images very quickly began to replace drawings and sketches and became widely utilized in the judicial and criminal systems. In other words, they became a requisite component of institutional control and were closely associated with factual evidence and confirmation of an existing truth.[52] For the better part of the nineteenth century, because they were regarded as a representation of independently existing reality and not a product of artistic imagination, photographs were also not included in copyright laws—neither in the United States nor Europe. Anyone could reproduce a photograph in as many copies as they wished—just as, most famously, was the case of the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company that in 1884 reproduced 85,000 copies of a photograph of Oscar Wilde (known as Oscar Wilde No. 18).

Napoleon Sarony, the photographer who took Oscar Wilde’s picture, determined that he had not received adequate compensation for the massive reproduction and took his plea to court. It was the well-known Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company v. Sarony 111 U.S. 53 (1884) case that instituted the first of series of decrees on photography copyrights. The main criteria that could qualify a photograph for copyright protection was that “staging” was involved since the latter “can be considered an original work of art, the product of the author’s intellectual invention.”[53] With the means of reproduction rapidly expanding at the end of the nineteenth century, it was artistic quality (formally understood as staging and composition) that legally entitled a photograph to copyright protection and afforded photographers means to receive compensation for their work. Less than two decades after the Sarony Case, it would be Genthe’s innovative dis-use of staging that would secure his place as the King of Portrait on the West Coast.

The King of Portrait and the Art of Un-staging

In addition to directly influencing Genthe’s decision to turn to photography, the aforementioned developments primed the upper-middle class to seek a different type of photographic product. Most propitiously for Genthe, the emphasis on work done by amateur rather than professional photographers, meant that his prior lack of credentials in the industry was in fact one of his strongest advantages. Around the time of publishing his “Rebellion in Photography” in 1901, Genthe branded himself as the harbinger of a new style that captured both the technological advancements and artistic aspirations of the new photographic era. His entry into the business world of photography was thus the entry of the rebel who was prepared to overturn the established conventions and take his followers onto a journey that captured the beauty and soul of both places and people.

In targeting his competition, Genthe was authoritative and unsparing: he qualified the work of the traditional photographer as “crude and false, preserving all the undesirable methods of the past.”[54] He also vividly described the method of staging and composition that traditional photographers would use. In their hands, the sitter-victim was:

put in front of the background of his choice and “posed”—that is, he is twisted into one of the twelve standard poses – more or less theatrical and grotesque—which the operator had in stock, and his head being securely fastened in a vise (head-rest), that makes any motion impossible, is told to look at a small picture (eye-rest)…. the resulting picture, though perhaps something of a likeness, must necessarily be devoid of any individual expression, and cannot claim any artistic merit.[55]

This, in Genthe’s opinion was not what photography could produce or what the general public would want to see:

The commercial photographers claim that the public demands such pictures. Well, the public may accept them as long as they don’t get anything better, but since the experiment has been made it was found that they do accept pictures that vastly differ from what the regular photographer used to give them.[56]

Using a different technique, “discarding all the sacred rules of the photographic tradition” Genthe launched a new product, and enacted a major transformation in the field of photography. His innovative technique—what would become known as the “Genthe style”—remained the distinguishing trademark of a most prolific and prominent career, spanning over three decades. And perhaps the greatest testimony to the appeal of Genthe’s product is the number of people he photographed even in the first few years of his career: only his pre-1906 registry shows a registered clientele of over 8,000 people, and by 1911 he had made well over 10,000 portraits. By the end of his life, his clientele and production most probably exceeded 100,000 portraits and photographs.[57]

Four distinct features marked his entrepreneurial approach to the business of photography:

  1. the offer of a new, innovative product and branding of a unique style
  2. reliance on technological innovations, particularly the introduction of color photography
  3. marketing exclusively through gallery exhibitions, articles and publications, and
  4. development of and reliance on extensive network of social and professional contacts

Each is briefly discussed below.

The Genthe Style

Driven by the constant quest to capture and record beauty, “to show the extraordinary coloring and radiant spirit that emanate from both people and landscapes,” Genthe developed a simple, but ingenious technique that he would use throughout his career. As he describes it in his autobiography: “Discarding all the sacred rules of photographic tradition, I had prescribed for myself a principle which I have religiously adhered to these many years: 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.”[58] Propitiously, this snapshot technique greatly benefitted from the technological revolution in camera production: the portable camera in particular allowed Genthe to perfect his “candid camera” approach. And, as Will Irwin aptly described Genthe’s skill and product:

Whatever Genthe’s general rank among the great photographers of the world, in one thing he always stood preeminent—the snapshot. He could take a bit of action at a street corner… and transform it into a genre work like the canvas of a Flemish master.[59]

Genthe was largely inspired in developing this method of picture-taking during his early days as an amateur photographer, while attempting to capture the picturesque and unique environment and residents of the San Francisco Chinatown. As most of the residents were unwilling to be photographed by a strange, six-foot-tall white man, Genthe had to resort to the use of a small camera that he could hide in his pocket. He had to then “only” patiently wait for the lighting and composition to naturally appear in front of him:

Again and again I went [to Chinatown] until I became a familiar figure on its streets. Many days I stood for hours at a corner or sat in some wretched courtyard, immobile and apparently disinterested, as I waited, eager and alert, for the sun to filter through the shadows of for some picturesque group of character to appear.[60]

Gradually, Herr Doctor became quite successful at capturing images of the Chinatown residents in their undisturbed, naturally flowing, everyday daily lives. His work in Chinatown perfected his skills, allowed him to become knowledgeable of the various effects of light and shadows on photographic composition, to explore the connection between people’s unobstructed movement and the beauty of their character, and it ultimately elevated him to the position of “the first professional photographer to give people portraits that were more than mere surface records—pictures…that showed something of the real character and personality of the sitter.”[61] As Jack Tchen would comment on the Chinatown series, Genthe’s photographs “allow us to gain glimpses of the radiant soul of [the Chinatown] residents.”[62]

Genthe’s rebellion and unequivocal introduction of the art of portrait photography, allowed him to capture and captivate an audience that not only admired, but—more than anything—was most enthusiastic to acquire Genthe’s high-end product. Although there is no systematic information on the prices he charged and commissions he made,[63] glimpses of evidence suggest that clients, such as President Wilson, had good reasons to characterize Genthe’s prices as “unconscionable.”[64] Indeed, various records confirm that the cost of Genthe’s photographs were high, even by today’s standards. In 1915, Genthe would charge the future Mrs. Wilson a “special rate” of $65 for ten photographs.[65] Earlier, at the dawn of the new century, in a San Francisco where the average annual wage of a worker was $525,[66] Genthe’s professional rate was $9 for a dozen small photographs; and $15 for a dozen enlarged photographs.[67] Genthe did not adjust his rates even during times of war. In 1941, he sold a set of pictures from his Greece travels for $500, the equivalent of almost $14,000 today.[68] (See Table 4 for 2012 real price, real value, and income value[69] comparisons).

Table 4. Sample of Genthe’s unconscionable prices – 2012 values
Year Price 2012 Real Price
2012 Real Value
2012 Income Value
1901 $9 $251 $585 $1,610
1901 $15 $418 $975 $2,680
1909 $30 $781 $190 $4,310
1915 $65 $1,530 $3,060 $8,650
1922 $75 $1,030 $2,270 $5,750
1941 $500 $6,070 $13,800 $26,000


Certainly, during a career that spanned over three decades, the Genthe style would invoke different initial reactions among those who commissioned and saw Genthe’s work. For example, President Wilson’s reaction to the portraits of Edith Bolling Galt provide one of the most passionate testimonies to the effect of Genthe’s images:

I had to hold myself tight while I was looking at those pictures. I was so carried away with delight that there were photographs from which your beautiful face could speak to me in all the long hours of our exile from one another that I could hardly refrain from taking you then and there in my arms… and expressing my emotion in the only way that it could be adequately expressed.[70]

Yet, the Genthe style was not to everyone’s taste. Perhaps an early indicator that his method and technique would eventually lose their appeal,[71] John D. Rockefeller was initially puzzled by Genthe’s pictures of the Rockefeller garden estates he had commissioned: As Genthe recollects, Rockefeller’s, initial response was: “I don’t know whether I like them or not. They are not clear. I feel when I look at them as if I need to wipe my glasses.”[72] Even Genthe’s explanation of his method: to bring out the beauty of the place by showing “the relation of the sculptures to their surroundings and with a view to the light and shadow” would not convince Mr. Rockefeller of the quality. It was only later, when the work was completed that Genthe received the greatest compliment ever paid to his work: “I wanted you to know,” Rockefeller told Genthe, “that I have learned many new beauties of my garden through your pictures.”[73] Genthe’s camera had taught Rockefeller how to see the beauty of his own home.

The combination of technological advancement and aesthetic values allowed Genthe to become one of the pioneer photographers that would rescue photography from five decades of commercialization where “peddlers and charlatans had gotten hold of the new technology and turned it into profit”[74] and was thus instrumental in establishing a place for photography in the world of arts while also tapping into the aesthetic sensibilities of the middle and upper class. More than that, the Genthe style synthesized distinct trends that were previously perceived as quite incompatible in the world of photography: the King of Portrait succeeded in delivering a final product that, on the one hand, integrated and relied on the latest technological advances and innovations (i.e. an embrace of industrialization and progress), and, on the other, as in a most complex work of art, captured something of the soul of the sitter or the spirit of a place. In this way, by integrating technology, business, and art, Genthe was able to introduce a groundbreaking product that established a new way of both representing and looking.

Significantly, this double-merger of technological innovation and aesthetic values in the art of photography catapulted Genthe twice to the lead of professional photography: first, at the dawn of the twentieth century, when he captured the San Francisco high-end market with the introduction of the soft-touch, candid photography. And, second, in 1911 when, in moving to New York, Genthe pioneered the use of color photography on a commercial level. While in 1898 his initial clientele came mainly from the ranks of the wealthy society women of San Francisco, by 1911, his mastery of color technology, combined with his signature style, instantly brought commissions from top industrialists such as J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller and prominent political figures, including three consecutive US presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.

Technological Innovations: Capturing the Rainbow

For a twenty-first century observer whose life is inadvertently saturated with images in color, it is impossible to imagine a world where photographic images were limited to the reproductions of colors only through various shades of black and white. But for San Franciscans of the first decade of the twentieth century, color photography brought in a paradigm shift equated with nothing less than man’s ability to fly. To state it differently, the invention of color photography was as exciting, revolutionary, and groundbreaking as the invention of the airplane. As one journalist reported in the San Francisco Examiner:

Two events there were, both of which brought Society to the verge of enthusiasm, and both were strictly within the field of applied Science. …In the first week we saw Mr. Paulhan demonstrate the possibilities of the aeroplane. It was the first local proof we have had of the astonishing fact that man has conquered the air. Later we all went to see another scientific achievement in its consummation. This was the exhibition of [sic] Dr. Genthe of which we have so often read about but never much believed in—the photographic of nature in her original colors.[75]

For photographers as well, color photography meant a whole new way of approaching and seeing the world, overcoming their prior techniques and retraining their eye. As Genthe himself would comment: “the photographer whose eye has been trained to see the hues of nature in monochrome will find it difficult, when he tackles color photography, to see subjects as color compositions.”[76] That Genthe created such a stir with his exhibit underscores the extent to which the rigor of his early academic training in Germany allowed him to sustain both his interest and capacity to master and perfect the use of the latest technological innovations. A number of factors also point to Genthe’s near monopoly over color photography in the first decade of the twentieth century. Certainly, as Will Irwin succinctly pointed out, “with the heart of a painter [Genthe] longed for color”[77] and had the necessary artistic training to see subjects as color compositions. More than that, and, as Quitslund suggests, Genthe’s interest in color stemmed not only from his artistic inclinations, but also from his theoretical exploration of the subject and his previous studies of Goethe’s theory of color.[78] And, as with his early work, Genthe’s path to offering a breakthrough product integrated his unique approach to marketing and networking. Although he was not the first to introduce the American audiences to autochrome color photographs, Genthe was the first to perfect the process and launch the new invention on a commercial scale. [79] As the society reporters noted, Genthe’s autochromes “finally reduced photography in colors not merely to an exact art, but to an art with a business basis.”[80] Indeed, as the leading autochrome color photographer, by 1909 Genthe would already charge $30 per plate for portraits.[81] By 1910, when Genthe took his autochrome plates to New York, the newspapers would identify him as “the color photographer;”[82] and the Evening Post declared that Genthe’s work “elicited from other experiments in color photography a most cordial acknowledgement that he has not only surpassed them but has transcended what they considered the possibilities of the art.”[83]

His cutting-edge mastery would also allow him to smoothly transition from San Francisco to New York and bring his photography work to a new level: beyond portraits, he would receive large commissions from the leading politicians and businessmen of the day; and his groundbreaking work in color photography would be featured in a number of magazines, vying to be among the first to publish color photographs. According to Genthe, his picture of a rainbow over the Grand Canyon, reproduced in Collier’s in 1912 as well as a number of portraits and landscapes featured in the American Magazine, are the first color photographs to appear in American publications. Soon after, Town and Country, Forum, and Delineator would follow suit and reproduce his autochrome plates.[84]

The Art of Marketing and Advertising Photographic Art

In establishing his brand name, Genthe relied on a technique quite unlike the main marketing strategies of the day. Instead of paying for commercial advertisements, Genthe popularized his work in a way befitting an academic scholar, not a business entrepreneur: Herr Doctor established his name primarily through the publication of essays and critical reviews on photography exhibits in San Francisco and overseas. More than direct revenue-generating activity, his articles and reviews allowed him to showcase his expertise and sophisticated understanding of art and photography. Only within the first five years of his career, he had over ten publications in leading local journals and magazines on various subjects pertaining to photography (See Sampling of publications in the United States, Table 5). His writing style and critical assessments were those of a person with an expert eye and superb technical skills—not of a novice who had just entered the profession. Genthe’s critical appraisal of photographic work and prolific advice on photography techniques and venues for exploration considerably enhanced his brand name and reputation. At the same time, as early as 1901, his own work gained substantial critical acclaim and soon after his work won major prizes at various exhibits.

Table 5. Sampling of publications by Genthe in the United States [85]


  • “Among Cliff-Dwellings: Scenes Along the Edges of Telegraph Hill Precipices.” The Wave 16 (15 May 1897): 4.
  • “Ageless Luster of Greece and Rhodes.” National Geographic 73 (April 1938): 477-92.
  • “Art at the Century Club” The Wave 19 (22 April 1899): 7.
  • As I Remember. (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1936).
  • The Book of Dance. (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916).
  • “Children” Camera Craft 4 (December 1901): 45-52.
  • “The Children of Chinatown.” Camera Craft 2 (December 1900): 99-104.
  • “A Critical Review of the Salon Pictures with a Few Words upon the Tendency of the Photographers” Camera Craft 2 (February 1901): 307-20.
  • “Glimpses of Old Mexico.” San Francisco News Letter 64 (20 December 1902).Highlights and Shadows. (New York: Greenberg, 1937).
  • Impressions of Old New Orleans, with a Foreword by Grace King. (New York: George H Doran, 1926).
  • Isadora Duncan: Twenty-Four Studies by Arnold Genthe, with a Foreword by Max Eastman. (New York and London: Mitchell Kennerley, 1929).
  • The Japanese Moderns. Exhibition catalogue. (New York: Jan Kleykamp, 1926).
  • “Notable Photography: Three Unusual Portratis” 90 Century (July 1915): 400.
  • “Old Chinatown.” The Craftsman 23 (February 1913): 540-46.
  • “Photographic Possibilities in Mexico” Camera Craft 6 (November 1902): 31-33.
  • “Rebellion in Photography.” Overland Monthly 38 (August 1901): 92-96.
  • “The Third San Francisco Salon” Camera Craft 6 (1903): 207-18.
  • “What various prominent critics have to say of the second San Francisco Photographic Salon Just Passed” Camera Craft 4 (February 1902): 169-171.
  • Old Chinatown: A Book of Pictures by Arnold Genthe with Text by Will Irwin. (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co, 1908).

At the first photographic salon at the Hopkins Institute of Art in 1901 Genthe won the Grand Prize for Best Individual Display and First Prize in portraiture for “Study, Head and Hand.”[86] In 1902 he won the grand prize for the best collection at the first Los Angeles salon. In 1903 his reputation and authoritative view brought him the Chairmanship of the selection (the Hanging) Committee for the Third Salon in San Francisco. At the start of his career, Genthe had thus succeeded in marketing his product not as a commercial item, but as a sophisticated piece of art, produced in the hands of the most innovative and knowledgeable photographer that the West Coast could have. In later years, Genthe continued publicizing his work primarily through books and articles (or photographic essays). This strategy was essential, particularly upon his relocation to New York, as it allowed him to penetrate the far more competitive and unforgiving New York market.

The Art of Networking

Similar to many leading twentieth-century photographers, Genthe aspired to establish photography as an artistic genre and shunned commercial photography for its crude methods and representation. Yet, Genthe also understood and perfected the art of networking, and was a strong proponent of business sponsorship for the arts. Along with Alfred Stieglitz, Genthe realized that photography’s entry into the circle of fine art is in many ways contingent on the appreciation and sponsorship of photography by wealthy donors. Thus, and although not directly related to his own life, Genthe devotes a few pages in his autobiography retelling stories of business sponsorship for the arts, including Stieglitz’s attempts to convince J.P. Morgan to display portrait photographs at the Fine Arts Section at the Met, and Paris Singer’s long-lasting sponsorship of Isadora Duncan and her dancers.

In San Francisco—a city where the business elite was indelible part of affairs of the state and its cultural developments—Genthe himself would become quite versed and would benefit greatly from the patronage and sponsorship borne through the close ties between business and cultural elites. Genthe’s erudite standing, gentlemanly manners, and deep understanding of various topics, led to multiple circles of friends and contacts irrespective of their political and social views. Upon arrival to San Francisco, he was immediately introduced to the most influential “top 500” of San Francisco’s elites. His employer, Baroness Von Schroeder, was the former Mary Donahue, daughter of the very influential and highly successful iron manufacturer and railroad entrepreneur, Peter Donahue.[87] Genthe used the connections and acquaintances made through the numerous parties and social events hosted by the Von Schroeders in order to establish his own business and attract clientele. Based on the list of acquaintances that he had acquired through the von Schroeders, Genthe’s studio (and outside stairs—where most of his clients preferred to sit) began accommodating the wives and children of some of the most successful manufacturers and industrialists of the time. One of his first patrons and avid promoters was the wife of the wealthy and influential owner of the Crocker National Bank, Mrs. William H. Crocker. Upon her recommendation, various dignitaries and celebrities, such as Princess Andre Poniatowski, Mira Edgerly, Alma De Bretteville (the future Mrs. Adolph Spreckels), would take turns sitting on the staircase in front of Genthe’s studio and wait to have their portrait taken. Princess Poniatowski, the former Miss Elizabeth Sperry, was the daughter and heiress of the flour mill magnate Austin Sperry, owner of the Sperry Flour Mills in Stockton. Possibly through his contacts with Alma De Bretteville, Genthe made connections with and took on many members of the wealthy and influential Spreckels family as sitters. Mira Edgerly (1879-1954), who was about to become one of the most sought-after miniature portrait painters and was thus wealthy and financially independent in her own right, would remain a life-long friend of Genthe. In addition to helping him make connections with various prominent figures, Edgerly would expose Genthe to various women’s rights causes. [88]

Simultaneously, Genthe developed a number of contacts through his membership in the professional photography club, Camera Craft, as well as his membership in the Bohemian Club. Whereas the Von Schroeders’ contacts brought in clientele from the most affluent circles of the San Francisco society, Genthe’s membership and close friendship with many of the Bohemian Club members, allowed him to connect with (and photograph) most of the leading politicians, businessmen, performers, and artists outside the San Francisco circles. This was because the influence of the Bohemian Club transcended regional boundaries and, as Genthe noted, “scarcely a man of note who came to San Francisco failed to be introduced into Bohemia.”[89] Genthe would say of his Bohemian Club experience that it was “the best that a man could have in those days in San Francisco”[90] and immediately upon moving to New York, he attempted to establish a similar type of network and relationships.

Some of the notable friends and clients from Genthe’s Bohemian days included actors and actresses such as Minnie Maddern Fiske, Sarah Bernhard, Julia Marlowe, and E. H. Sothern; dancers, musicians and opera stars such as Anna Pavlova, Ignacy Paderewski, Antonio Scotti, Nellie Melba, etc. Last but not least, through his work with the Wave, and later as part of the Bohemian Club, Genthe had connected and established close contacts with some of the leading writers of the day, including Jack London, George Sterling, and Will Irwin. Uniquely, all of these contacts—and Marlowe, Sterling, and Irwin in particular—would be instrumental in the initial networking and launch of Genthe’s New York career.

Personal networking was central to Genthe’s career and most of his high-end commissions came through contacts and connections that he had established over the years. Although Genthe did not engage in commercial advertisement and promotion of his work, Genthe’s critical acclaim and renown ensured that any person of stature—be it a political figure or a famous musician—would request or would be sent to Genthe’s portrait studio. The enormous success of both his San Francisco and New York careers was essentially due to the friendships and connections that Genthe would develop and maintain throughout his life. An example of Genthe’s style of networking and marketing can be seen in the chart below.

Table 6. The Genthe networking – sample[91]

Although Genthe did not elaborate on the role of the German community for his business success, his customer registries read like detailed lists of all prominent San Francisco inhabitants from German descent. It is similarly known that around 1912-1913, future photojournalist Dorothea Lange decided to begin her own journey in the world of photography as Genthe’s studio assistant, partially because she could communicate with him in German.[92]

And all the while, Genthe’s personal values and world outlook, instilled through centuries of family tradition and rigorous intellectual pursuits, remained an indelible part of his essence and continued to play a major role throughout his life. Thus, perhaps even more remarkable than the link to his national origin was Genthe’s deeply ingrained commitment to upholding the principles of tolerance and respect for freedom. In his largely anecdotal and seemingly apolitical autobiography, one can get a clear sense of Genthe’s commitment to various causes, such as promoting women’s equality and rights. Throughout the years, he was invited to give lectures and speeches to numerous women’s clubs and organizations.[93] There was also his unwavering dedication and meticulous recording of (at the time) revolutionary and liberating modern dance techniques of Isadora Duncan and her numerous disciples. And, in 1916, Genthe, along with artists Mario Korbel and Walter Goldbeck, took to heart the plight Polish war victims and actively helped pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski organize and promote a fundraising campaign for the Polish Victims Relief Fund in New York. The extraordinary gesture was not lost on Paderewski, who, in his note of gratitude, simply, but poignantly acknowledged that “sorely as the money is needed, I appreciate even more deeply than that itself, the sentiment which prompted you to organize the benefit and give the proceeds to me.”[94]


Arnold Genthe approached photography as an artist who was trained in the high aesthetic traditions of nineteenth-century Germany and as a scholar who was keenly aware of and eager to apply the latest technological innovations to his craft. The result was a unique style that, at the fin de siècle, amounted to nothing less than rebellion in a stale, commercially-driven industry, where most photographers were regarded as charlatans and petty dealers. His break away from the nineteenth century photo-making techniques, the quick and effective adoption of the latest technological innovations, and the application of years of study of the principles of composition, color, and light produced a new synthesis that would significantly advance photography’s claim as an artistic genre.

Branding his product as a new form of artistic enterprise, Genthe’s work would not only be immensely profitable, but through his unique networking ability, it would allow him to identify and exploit a number of new venues to be captured and transmitted through photographic images. And as much as the free spirit of United States allowed for his creative and entrepreneurial mind to flourish, it was his family roots and deeply ingrained philosophical and intellectual values that shaped and informed his artistic outlook, business strategy, and unique quality of and approach to the photographic image. Thus, although his primary business activity was in the field of portrait photography, today Genthe remains well-known for his pioneering work on dance; his photographs of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; and his early images of the pre-1906 San Francisco Chinatown. During his prolific thirty-four year career as a photographer, the classically trained German philologist, sometimes referred to as the King of Photography and the Super Camera-Man, had an unprecedented success and most glamorous clientele. The unique way in which he related to his sitters was perhaps best expressed by his friend, lover, and one of the persons he photographed the most—Isadora Duncan:

Arnold Genthe is not only a genius but a wizard. He had left painting for photography, but this photography was most weird and magical. It is true that he pointed his camera at people and took their photographs, but the pictures were never photographs of his sitters, but his hypnotic imagination of them. He has taken many pictures of me, which are not representations of my physical being, but representations of conditions of my soul, and one of them is my very soul indeed.[95]


[1] For fascinating accounts on Genthe’s influence on the early career of Dorothea Lange see Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A life beyond limits (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010) and Suzanne Riess, “The making of a documentary photographer: Dorothea Lange.” Interview with Dorothea Lange (UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, 1968) (accessed January 1, 2014).

[2] Arnold Genthe, As I Remember (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1936), 7.

[3] Genthe would subsequently donate the entire collection of Hegel manuscripts to Harvard University. For detailed information see, “Notes and News.” The Journal of Philosophy 8, no. 11 (1911).

[4] Genthe, As I Remember, 5.

[5] Following the German canon, Arnold and his brothers began studying Latin at nine, French at ten, English at eleven, and Greek at twelve; Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 4-5.

[7] Ibid., 144-145.

[8] Ibid, 144.

[9] Ibid, 4.

[10] For an in-depth account of the various aesthetic and philosophical influences on Genthe’s early life, see Toby Gersten Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer in San Francisco 1895-1911,” Ph.D diss (George Washington University, 1988), 36-42.

[11] Fritz Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins (Wesleyan, 1990), quoted in Toby Quitslund, Ibid, 38.

[12] Ibid., 39-40.

[13] Genthe, As I Remember, 16.

[14] Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 50.

[15] Genthe, As I Remember, 280.

[16] Ibid, 44.

[17] In 1904 Genthe had planned to travel throughout Europe and the Middle East with his brother Siegfried, but shortly before their meeting, Siegfried was killed in Morocco. Genthe’s last trip to Germany in 1904 was to settle family deeds; at the time he also shipped a number of manuscripts and family heirlooms to San Francisco. The latter were lost to the 1906 earthquake and fire. Genthe travelled to Europe several times after 1904 but never went back to Germany. See Genthe, As I Remember.

[18] Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 21.

[19] Max Eastman, Foreword in Arnold Genthe, Isadora Duncan, Twenty Four Studies (New York and London: Mitchell Kennerley, 1929).

[20] Genthe, As I Remember, 278-9.

[21] Newspaper quote from Genthe’s Scrapbook, quoted in Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 121.

[22] For a comprehensive account on late nineteenth and early twentieth century San Francisco see William Issel and Robert Cherny, San Francisco, 1865-1932. Politics, Power and Urban Development, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

[23] Issel and Cherny. San Francisco, 23.

[24] Ibid, 24.

[25] For a comprehensive list of Kodak Camera prices see (accessed January 25, 2014).

[26] Genthe rented his first studio on Sutter Street at $25/month and with the influx of small Kodak cameras on the market, the prices for photographic equipment had become relatively affordable. Also, Genthe’s membership at the Camera Club gave him access to additional facilities for developing his negatives and making enlargements. See Genthe, As I Remember, 40 and 45.

[27] Numbers include listings for photographers’ studios listed as non-commercial photographers. Information retrieved from the San Francisco Business Directories for the respective years at San Francisco Public Library City Directories Online (accessed November-December 2013).

[28] U.S. Census Office data as quoted in Issel and Cherny. San Francisco, 24.

[29] Listed under photographic galleries.

[30] Genthe, As I Remember, 43.

[31] Ibid., 121

[32] Taft quoted in Roger C. Birt, Envisioning the City: photography in the history of San Francisco: 1850-1906, Ph.D diss (Yale University, 1985), 145.

[33] Roger C Birt, Envisioning the City, 32.

[34] Ibid., 1-2.

[35] Ibid., 4-6.

[36] See Endnote 72 for definitions.

[37] While the exhibition brought acclaim, but not revenue, Vance was able to later improve his marketing strategy and in 1854 opened his First Premium Gallery in San Francisco. His studio and gallery work positioned him as a leader in California photography for the next decade. See Birt, Envisioning the City, 7.

[38] Birt, Envisioning the City, 10.

[39] Alfred Stieglitz, “Pictoral Photography,” in Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography, (Connecticut: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 117.

[40] Christopher H. Sterling, Encyclopedia of Journalism, Photography (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009), 1056.

[41] Genthe, As I Remember, 260.

[42] According to Jenkins, these stages reflect the domination of a particular type of photosensitive carrier-base that in turn defined operational technological conceptions for both technicians and businessmen and delineated the boundaries within which technological change took place. See Reese V. Jenkins, Images and Enterprise (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 4-5.

[43] Sterling, Encyclopedia of Journalism, 1056.

[44] Jenkins, Images and Enterprise, 344.

[45] Birt, Envisioning the City, iii.

[46] The Frickey index of US manufacturing, named after Edwin Frickey, is an aggregation of a series of annual indices of production of physical output in the manufacturing industry, transport, and communication. See Edwin Frickey. Production in the United States 1860-1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942).

[47] Quoted in Stieglitz, “Pictoral Photography,” 118.

[48] Birt, Envisioning the City, 320-324.

[49] Arnold Genthe, “Rebellion in Photography,” Overland Monthly (1901), 92.

[50] Although he was invited to take part, Genthe did not display his work at the exhibit. Despite his highest regard for Stieglitz, Genthe also never associated with Photo-Secession or with Stieglitz’s later turn to “straight” photography. See Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” and Tratchenberg, Classic Essays.

[51] Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Trachtenberg, Classic Essays, 240-241.

[52] Most significantly, the photographic image would play a critical role in the establishment of the system of monitoring and control of migration and immigration: Chinese migrants to the United States were required to present photographic evidence as part of their visa application as early as the 1880s. See Anna Pegler-Gordon, In Sight of America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009). In the twentieth century, the use of the photographic image as a truthful representation and instrument of legality would expand globally and affect all nationalities. See Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order (New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2011).

[53] Birt, Envisioning the City, 8.

[54] Genthe, “Rebellion in Photography,” 94.

[55] Ibid., 94.

[56] Genthe, As I Remember, 42.

[57] For extensive discussion of Genthe’s production see Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 287-289.

[58] Genthe, As I Remember, 261.

[59] Will Irwin, “German-American Artist Who Perfected Color Photography,” American Magazine (1913), 34.

[60] Genthe, As I Remember, 35.

[61] Ibid., 261.

[62] John Kwo Wei Tchen, Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco Chinatown (New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc, 1984),15.

[63] A considerable number of items that were part of the Genthe estate, including any remaining business records, were misplaced in the transfer to the Library of Congress following his death in 1942.

[64] Arthur Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 33 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 264.

[65] The second Mrs. Wilson remained a loyal Genthe customer, ordering various portrait photographs from him throughout the years: one bill from 1927 shows a charge for $75 for a dozen prints; another, from 1931, has a “special” rate of $60. Mrs. Wilson was one of the very few people named in Genthe’s will and upon his death in 1942 she inherited all negatives from pictures he had taken of her. See Library Of Congress, The Papers of Edith Bolling Wilson, Box 18, Genthe Folder.

[66] Issel and Cherny. San Francisco, 42.

[67] Arnold Genthe, pre-1906 Name Registry, back page, Library of Congress, Photographs Division.

[68] A letter of the transaction with Frank Rosen is at the NYPL, Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, Manuscripts and Prints Division, Call Number (S) *MGZMD 107.

[69]Real Price measures a subject (a commodity) against the cost of a bundle of goods and services that in principle is fixed though in practice varies over time. Real Value measures a subject (a commodity) relative to the “value of the household bundle” (VHB). Income Value measures a subject (commodity or project) against a specific wage or more-general income, such as the average wage rate or per capita GDP.See MeasuringWorth (accessed January 26, 2014).

[70] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 33, 263.

[71] After 1917, Alfred Stieglitz and many of the Secessionists moved away from the pictoral, soft-touch method and began advocating for “straight” photography. As Genthe never developed consistent and exclusive associations with any of the photographic movements of the early twentieth century, different critics have seen his work as representative of multiple techniques—pictoral, straight, and even social photography. (for extensive discussion see Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer”). Although Genthe’s work was never discredited, his product lost its early appeal and profitability toward the end of his life.

[72] Genthe, As I Remember, 132.

[73] Ibid., 133.

[74] Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” in Trachtenberg, Classic Essays, 200.

[75] Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer”, 119.

[76] Genthe, As I Remember, 268.

[77] Irwin, “German-American Artist,” 34.

[78] Genthe had spent considerable time on the subject in his youth, particularly as developed in the correspondence between Hegel and Goethe. See Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer” and Footnote 3.

[79] The autochrome process, patented by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1903, produces a positive color image on a glass plate to be viewed either by projection in a stereopticon or by reflected light. Alfred Stieglitz began exhibiting autochromes in New York as early as 1907.

[80] Quoted in Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 121.

[81] Ibid.,121.

[82] Ibid., 124, New York Dramatic Mirror, October 12, 1910:5.

[83] Evening Post, January 14, 1911.

[84] Genthe, As I Remember, 119-122

[85] For a more extensive list of publications by Genthe, see Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 293-4. For a list of articles and op-ed pieces that Genthe published in the New York Times, see James C. A. Kaufmann, “Arnold Genthe: Gentleman Photographer,” Image 20, no. 3-4 (1977), 10.

[86] Camera Craft 2 (February 1901), 291-97.

[87] Among his numerous ventures, Donahue was a founder of the Union Iron Works, the Southern Pacific, and the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society (Quitslund, “Arnold Genthe: A pictoral photographer,” 54-55 and Issel and Cherny, San Francisco, 27).

[88] Extensive information on Edgerly, including her marriage to Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) in 1919 and their work on theories of General Semantics can be found at Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[89] Genthe, As I Remember, 63

[90] Ibid., 59.

[91] Based on Genthe’s account, Ibid., 122-126.

[92] Gordon, Dorothea Lange, 32.

[93] Much of his activities were part of the work of his close friend from the San Francisco years, Myra Edgelry (1872-1954).

[94] Genthe, As I Remember, 170-171.

[95] Isadora Duncan, My Life (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1996), 327.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Arnold Genthe
  • Coverage 1869-1942
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018