Arnold Genthe

Vicki and I had never been to Fort Wayne, so one Sunday we drove up to explore. Vicki had a list of Yarn Shops, and I had seen that there were a few bookstores listed online. One of my favorite activities is exploring a newly discovered, old book shop. I have a general list of books that I would like to find, and there are some that I have heard of and read portions that have been quoted, but because of their age, never expect to find. One book on this list is “As I Remember” by the German-American photographer Arnold Genthe. It was withdrawn from the Fort Wayne and Allen County Library, and inside it is noted “Jan 11 1941 $2.00”. I paid a little more than that for it, and am amazed to have found a copy.

Published in 1936, this is Genthe’s memories of coming to America as the tutor for a San Francisco banker’s daughter, his establishment of a photo studio and practice, and the amazing people he met as he moved his studio to New York, as well as his travels to Mexico, Guatemala, Japan and Greece.

I have always admired his photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and enjoyed reading about his experiences wandering through the streets, making photographs of strangers, and then keeping appointments to make portraits of people who were at the top of society and the arts. His subjects included the writers Frank Norris, Jack London and Sinclair Lewis, the dancers Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Sarah Bernhardt, Arturo Toscanini, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Mary Pickford, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Barrymore and Greta Garbo.

Genthe had a studio in San Francisco in 1906, and the morning after hearing Enrico Caruso perform Carmen, he was awakened by the earthquake. Having experienced a few quakes in The City, I am not surprised at his descriptions of people wandering outside to look at the damage, meeting for breakfast, and then watching calmly as the fires progressed. He only decided to get a camera mid-day, and when he returned to his building, the door was guarded by a soldier who was under orders to shoot anyone who tried to return to their homes. In an effort to stop the fires, the army was dynamiting blocks ahead of the fires, and Genthe was forced to stand back and watch as his building, his studio, and all his possessions were blown to bits, his “thousands of (glass plate) negatives which I had made during that time were now but chunks of molten, iridescent glass, fused together in fantastic forms. Everything I possessed was destroyed….”

Luckily his Chinatown negatives had been moved to a friend’s vault as he had been warned: “You ought to not keep all these plates and films here. Some day the whole city will burn up.”

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