The Man Behind The Rare Photographs Of San Francisco’s Chinatown

The Man Behind The Rare Photographs Of San Francisco’s Chinatown And 1906 Earthquake

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These Photographs Taken Back At The Turn Of The Last Century Will Leave You At A Loss For Words

See how this photographer was able to capture rare images of the vibrant Chinese community In San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and then after the destruction it left behind.

Arnold Genthe is a German-born American Photographer who was Internationally recognized for his work and best known for photographs of San Francisco’s China Town, before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the earthquake itself.

He has also made portraits of many notable politicians, socialites, literary figures and other entertainment celebrities that include actors and dancers.

Arnold was born in Berlin on the 8th of January 1869 to professor Hermann Genthe and Louise Zober. He had a cosmopolitan upbringing in Germany where he became a scholar with a doctorate in classical philology.

Although, at heart, he wished to become an artist – much to the discouragement of Adolf Menzel, his mother’s cousin.

Portrait photograph of Arnold Genthe Title: Portrait photograph of Arnold Genthe; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1911 and 1942. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Arnold Genthe's Photography & Style

In 1895, Arnold emigrated from Germany to San Francisco after accepting the offer to tutor the son of Baron and Baroness F Henrich von Schroeder (who themselves had emigrated to San Francisco).

It was during this time that Arnold took to his passion and taught himself photography.

What fascinated Arnold and aroused the curiosity within him was Chinatown and its inhabitants in San Francisco. This was a true novelty and something he just had to document with his camera.

He wandered the streets of San Francisco with a small hand-held camera fitted with a Zeiss lens. He also joined the city’s local camera club so that he could practice photography using better equipment and make good use of the studio as well.

Arnold would most of the time discreetly photograph the inhabitants of Chinatown understandably because his subjects could possibly fear the camera or be hesitant to have their pictures taken.

Arnold would later crop the pictures or do some erasing to remove any references of westerners in them (likely this was to bring in the real feel of the district and its culture; we're not totally sure).

Pictures by Arnold Gent from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath

Ruins after San Francisco earthquake, 1906 Ruins after San Francisco earthquake, 1906

San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 Title: San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1906 and 1942; from a photograph taken 1906 Apr. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 Title: San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1906 and 1942; from a photograph taken 1906 Apr. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 Title: Aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1906 and 1942; from a photograph taken 1906 Apr. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

People cooking on the street after the earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco, California People cooking on the street after the earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco, California

San Franciscans Watch From the Street as Their City Burns San Franciscans Watch From the Street as Their City Burns; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906
Here is a collection of photographs by Arnold Genthe, taken in Chinatown, San Francisco

In front of the Joss House, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: In front of the Joss House, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Reading the Tong proclamation, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Reading the Tong proclamation, Chinatown, San Francisco; Other Title: Tong proclamation, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

The fish dealer's daughter, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: The fish dealer's daughter, Chinatown, San Francisco; Other Title: Baskets for sale, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

The grocery store, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: The grocery store, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Carrying New Year's presents, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Carrying New Year's presents, Chinatown, San Francisco; Other Title: Mother, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

A holiday, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: A holiday, Chinatown, San Francisco; Other Title: Two children in holiday dress, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

The crossing, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: The crossing, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Woman and children walking down a street, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Woman and children walking down a street, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Street scene, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Street scene, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Two women and a child walking down a sidewalk between crates, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Two women and a child walking down a sidewalk between crates, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Five girls in holiday finery, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Five girls in holiday finery, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Street corner in Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Street corner in Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1920 and 1930. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Their first photograph, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Their first photograph, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1942; from a photograph taken between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Little Plum Blossom, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Little Plum Blossom, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Small child sitting on a doorstep, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Small child sitting on a doorstep, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Washington Street, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Washington Street, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

The street of the slave girls, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: The street of the slave girls, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : safety ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Street scene, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Street scene, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : safety ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Merchant, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: Merchant, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : safety ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

His first cigar, Chinatown, San Francisco Title: His first cigar, Chinatown, San Francisco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1906. Medium: 1 transparency : safety ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.
Most of the pictures made during this time were destroyed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with only about 200 of them that escaped the quake and fire. This included photos from his travels in Europe, Asia, Yosemite, New Orleans and portraits of dancers.

Arnold became famous when a few local magazines published a few of his Chinatown photographs after which he opened his own portrait studio in 1898.

He gained a pretty amazing reputation because of his published images and his clients now included famous personalities and the wealthy classes. He also took impressive portraits of the women in the society, artists, dancers and other art personalities.

You can see a collection of portraits taken by Arnold Genthe below:

Portrait photograph of Greta Garbo Title: Portrait photograph of Greta Garbo; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1925 and 1942; from a negative taken 1925 July. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Portrait photograph of John McCormack Title: Portrait photograph of John McCormack; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1915 and 1942; from a negative taken between 1915 and 1926. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Portrait photograph of Mischa Elman Title: Portrait photograph of Mischa Elman; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1915 and 1942; from a negative taken 1915 Apr. 15. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.
Dancers

Unidentified woman dancing Title: Unidentified woman dancing; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1942; from a photograph taken between 1896 and 1942. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Grete Wiesenthal (Donauwalzer) Title: Grete Wiesenthal (Donauwalzer); Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Related Names: Jobst, Rudolf, 1872-1952 , photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1942; from a print. Medium: 1 slide : lantern ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.
Below are some photographs that Arnold Genthe made during his travels:

Travel views of Yosemite National Park Title: Travel views of Yosemite National Park; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1903 and 1906. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Group of people at Long Beach, New York. Title: Group of people at Long Beach, New York.; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1896 and 1942. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Cuba and Guatemala Title: Travel views of Cuba and Guatemala; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1899 and 1926. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Morocco Title: Travel views of Morocco; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer Date Created/Published: 1904. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.

Travel views of Japan and Korea Title: Travel views of Japan and Korea; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1908. Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller.
In 1905 Arnold adopted the autochrome, which is a color photography process that he began experimenting with, in 1905. He is one of the earliest photographers to exhibit color photographs in America which had a collection of portraits and landscapes.

Interior of Arnold Genthe's studio on Clay Street in San Francisco, [Taos Pueblo, New Mexico], [Taos Pueblo, New Mexico] Title from left to right: Interior of Arnold Genthe's studio on Clay Street in San Francisco, [Taos Pueblo, New Mexico], [Taos Pueblo, New Mexico]; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1906 and 1928. Medium: 1 photograph : autochrome, color ; 5 x 7 in.

Boy in the gardens of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio, Hazel MacKaye, seated with an open copy of her brother Percy MacKaye's play, Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, on her lap Title left to right: Boy in the gardens of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio, Hazel MacKaye, seated with an open copy of her brother Percy MacKaye's play, Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, on her lap; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1912 and 1942. Medium: 1 photograph : autochrome, color ; 5 x 7 in.

Title from left to right: House behind bare trees, Side view of a two-story house with white planking and black shutters and a porch, Herd of cattle Title from left to right: House behind bare trees, Side view of a two-story house with white planking and black shutters and a porch, Herd of cattle; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: between 1906 and 1942. Medium: 1 photograph : autochrome, color ; 5 x 7 in.

The Effects Of The Earthquake

Most of Arnold’s work was sadly destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a fire destroyed his studio along with studio equipment, books and art collections.

Arnold did not give up, but used a borrowed camera to document the events of the quake and eventually rebuilt his studio where he started experimenting with the new autochrome process.
One of the most famous pieces of his work is the photograph portraying the aftermath of the earthquake –

“Looking down Sacramento Street, San Francisco, April 18, 1906.”

Looking Down Sacramento St., 1906 Looking Down Sacramento St., 1906. [verso:] “San Francisco: April 18, 1906.” From As I Remember by local photographer Arnold Genthe: This photograph shows “the results of the earth quake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people.” It was taken the morning of the first day of the fire. Shows Sacramento St. at Miles Place (now Miller Place) near Powell St.

Below is an excerpt from the book “As I remember” Reynal & Hitchcock: New York, 1936; by Genthe, Arnold.

Chapter 10: Earthquake and Fire

“I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. ‘Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.' I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out…. Of the pictures I had made during the fire, there are several, I believe, that will be of lasting interest.

There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the morning of the first day of the fire [along Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay] which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it.

Several people upon seeing it have exclaimed, “Oh, is that a still from a Cecil De Mille picture?” To which the answer has been, “No. the director of this scene was the Lord himself.” A few months ago an interview about my work–I had told the story of that fire picture–appeared in a New York paper with the headline, “His pictures posed by the Lord, says photographer.””

Shortly after this, Arnold joined the art colony in Carmel where he was able to continue continue his work in color photography. Arnold was able to experiment with color while he was here and this is what he wrote about his experience in his new residence:

“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.”

Arnold lived in Carmel for about two years during which he was appointed as the Board of Directors to the Art Gallery in Hotel Del Monte.

Arnold then moved to San Francisco in 1907 where he set up his studio, displayed his works, wrote reviews for photos and art exhibitions in newspapers.

In 1911 Arnold moved to New York City where he worked mostly on portraiture and his clients included famous personalities like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, modern dancers like Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan and actresses like Ann Murdock, etc.

Arnold’s cat, Buzzer, would also appear in portraits occasionally with his subjects.

Ann Murdock with Buzzer Title: Ann Murdock with Buzzer; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer Date Created/Published: 1914. Medium: 1 photograph : autochrome, color ; 5 x 7 in.

Title from left to right: Maude, Bonnie, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph, Whittaker, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph Title from left to right: Maude, Bonnie, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph, Whittaker, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published from left to right: between 1912 and 1918, 1916. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in.

Cluett, Marjorie, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph Title: Cluett, Marjorie, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1917 Dec. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in.

Title from left to right: Bermicchi, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph, Hinckley, Arthur, Mrs., with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph Title from left to right: Bermicchi, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph, Hinckley, Arthur, Mrs., with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published from left to right: 1916, 1913. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in.

Damrosch, Anita, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph Title: Damrosch, Anita, Miss, with Buzzer the cat, portrait photograph; Creator(s): Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1914 Mar. 27. Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in.

Summary

Arnold has published his photographs in books like San Francisco’s Chinatown (1908), New Orleans (1926) and The Dance (1916 to 1929).

Arnold lived in New York 'til 1942 when he died of a heart attack. The Library of Congress (LoC) in 1943 purchased the remaining photographic materials that were present in his studio.

The LoC took the initiative to produce an electronic collection of more than 16,000 of Arnold’s negatives, autochromes and lantern slides as a large collection of these negatives deteriorate with age.

Tragically, there are a huge number of his photographic films that remain unprocessed – who knows what fascinating pieces of history these might uncover?


Further Resources

About the author

Dahlia Ambrose

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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