A 20-piece exhibit coming Feb. 13 to the German Historical Institute near Dupont Circle gives but a glimpse of the 100,000 photos taken by Arnold Genthe, who revolutionized portrait photography in the early 20th century.
They called him “super-camera man,” and the “king of photography,” or just “Herr Doktor” in reference to his PhD in classical studies, said Marina Kaneti, the New School for Social Research scholar who curated “Visions of Beauty: Arnold Genthe and the Art of Photography.”
The story starts in San Francisco in 1897, where the young Genthe (1869-1942) dreaded the idea of returning to Berlin to become a professor like his father. He stalled by taking a job tutoring kids of a German baron who had married a rich miner’s daughter from California.
Through the baron, he met San Francisco society and soon discovered the new, fast Kodak camera. Then his parents died, leaving him well off. The baron returned to Berlin, and Genthe stayed, falling hard both for photography and the wide-open personal freedom he found in San Francisco, Kaneti said.
“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,” Genthe wrote in his autobiography much later. He never returned to Germany after 1904 and became a U.S. citizen in 1918.
Portrait photography up until his time was staged and dull, “the work of charlatans,” Kaneti said. Genthe revolutionized it by using fast cameras to take photos of people being natural. He had them play with cats, take a walk or just sit long enough to be at ease and centered, she said. “He seemed to be able to make anyone comfortable.”
The exhibit’s portrait of Jack London looks thoroughly modern — a player in an expensive suit, maybe a lawyer trolling K Street or working the Hill for a trade association.
But Genthe somehow talked London into undressing — “that beauty thing” Kaneti said. He posed clad only in the briefest of underwear with his back to the camera — all the better to show off his outside linebacker body — a picture missing from the exhibit that would go far to illustrate Genthe’s power of persuasion and playfulness.
The other innovation of Genthe’s that remains is his pioneering use of color in ads and slick magazines — the YouTube, Twitter and Facebook of a century ago. After moving to New York in 1911, Genthe was the first to have a color cover on a magazine — a rainbow over the Grand Canyon.
The glamorous of the day loved him. Think Greta Garbo, William Butler Yeats, Arturo Toscanini, Sinclair Lewis, Babe Ruth, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, a baby-faced Herbert Hoover, and a string of presidents, especially Woodrow Wilson.
For all that, if Genthe is known today, it’s for his shots of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He spent a month cataloguing the destruction of the city. Scholars esteem his studies of Chinatown, and Japan, Korea, Greece and Latin America. He picked up Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Spanish to communicate there without translators.
The highest praise for Genthe may be from Wilson, who complained about paying as much as $1,000 in today’s dollars for a single print of his wife. Still, Wilson filled the White House with Genthe prints and confessed to their power, writing:
“I had to hold myself tight while I was looking at those pictures. I was so carried away with delight.”
Lane is a freelance writer.
Feb. 13-April 30, German Historical Institute, 1607 New Hampshire Ave. NW 202-387-3355. www.ghi-dc.org.