Genthe Biography and Background of the Collection
Genthe's autobiography, As I Remember (1936), is the chief source of information about his life. In it, Genthe recounts a cosmopolitan upbringing in Berlin, Frankfurt, Korbach, and Hamburg. His father, Hermann Genthe, was a professor of Latin and Greek and, later in life, founded and served as director of a gymnasium or preparatory school.
Under his father's tutelage, young Arnold grew up well versed in topics from poetry to classical literature, and was also an accomplished horseman. His father died when Genthe was seventeen prompting his mother to take in foreign visitors as boarders. Genthe liked to say that he and his brothers learned fifteen different modern and ancient languages between them.
Genthe wished to become an artist. However, the distinguished German painter Adolph Menzel, his mother's cousin, discouraged the youth from studying art. Hoping to instead pursue a teaching career like that of his father, Genthe entered the university in Jena where he earned a doctorate in classical philology and completed a dictionary of German slang.
Genthe's studies included a year in Berlin and further study of French literature and art history at the Sorbonne before returning to Hamburg. In 1895 he accepted an offer to tutor the young son of Baron F. Heinrich von Schroeder when the family moved to San Francisco. Thus began a new life for Genthe in America.
Genthe's first photographs were made while in the employ of the von Schroeders to illustrate his letters home. With a hand-held camera fitted with a Zeiss lens, he wandered the streets of San Francisco. Like other amateurs, he soon joined the city's camera club to gain access to better equipment and the use of a studio for portraiture. Shown here are Genthe and one of his cameras.
Genthe became involved in photography at a crucial juncture in the history of the medium. The introduction of the hand-held camera and easier methods for development and printing encouraged many people to try photography: casual amateurs, serious amateurs interested in photography as art, professional photographers, and commercial photographers. Genthe's career bridged these different spheres. He began as an amateur, but soon moved into professional work. He exhibited with art photographers and published his photographs in books and popular magazines, like this March 30, 1912 Collier's magazine cover.
Genthe opened his first portrait photography studio in San Francisco in 1898 and became very active in the city's cultural and social milieu. At the socially prominent Bohemian Club, he mingled with artists, writers, theater people, community and business leaders, and entertained famous out-of-town visitors. Through contacts at the illustrated weekly The Wave, he met Frank Norris, Jack London, and Mary Austen, all shown here with Genthe.
Even as the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 destroyed Genthe's studio, equipment, books, and art collection, he used a borrowed camera to document the events as they unfolded. Genthe and Ashton Stevens, drama critic for the San Francisco Examiner, toured the ruins with visiting celebrity Sarah Bernhardt, shown here. Undaunted, Genthe soon opened another studio and began experiments with the new autochrome color process.
By 1911 Genthe had cemented his reputation as "dean of idealistic impressionism on the west coast," in the words of colleague Annie Brigman. In that year he left San Francisco for new opportunities in New York. As in San Francisco, Genthe's considerable erudition and savoir faire afforded him access to New York's most important personalities and visiting luminaries. From the 1910s through the 1930s, he thrived as a professional portrait photographer. His clientele included Greta Garbo, Arturo Toscanini, John D. Rockefeller, and presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, shown here.
Genthe enhanced his national reputation by publishing photographs in books on San Francisco's Chinatown (1908), New Orleans (1926), and the dance (1916 and 1929). He became fascinated by Asian art and collected Japanese prints, Chinese paintings, sculptures, and jades. He photographed objects from his personal collection, as well as the collections of others. This autochrome shows the interior of the J.P. Morgan library.
Genthe led a colorful life surrounded by a wide circle of famous and influential people. He had many women friends, but never married. At Genthe's death, the contents of his studio and his personal effects were dispersed by former secretary Byrd Hazelton. Shortly after Genthe's death, an editorial in The Evening Star helped persuade Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish to acquire Genthe's work for the Library of Congress.
The production of the "electronic collection" of more than 16,000 of Arnold Genthe's negatives, lantern slides, and autochromes was part of a major initiative by Congress to allow the Library to preserve its vast negative collections that deteriorate naturally with age. Some of Genthe's photographic prints and other items have been grouped by subject matter into "LOTs" [ view LOT records for Genthe photographic prints]. The rest of Genthe's photographic prints are currently unprocessed. Arrangements to view unprocessed prints are made under the Access to Unprocessed Materials policy.