Visions of Beauty

Arnold Genthe and the Art of Photography

February 25, 2014, 6:00-8:00pm
Exhibition Opening, Dance Performance and Lecture at the GHI
Exhibition: February 13, 2014 - April 2014
Curated by Marina Kaneti (New School for Social Research)

  • Event Report
    Marina Kaneti, the exhibition’s curator
    Cynthia Word of Word Dance

    In conjunction with an article on Arnold Genthe's pioneering work and prominent career as portrait photographer published on the Immigrant Entrepreneurship website, the GHI is hosting an exhibit featuring twenty reproductions of Genthe's photographs. The copies were acquired from the vast Genthe collection at the Library of Congress and the California Historical Society. 

    As part of the well-attended opening event on February 25, the curator of the exhibit, Marina Kaneti, delivered a lecture on Genthe's multifaceted understanding of beauty and the various ways in which Genthe uniquely captured beauty in an extraordinary variety of subjects and compositions. True to his intellectual and artistic upbringing in Hamburg, Jena, and Berlin, Genthe's photography was influenced, on the one hand, by Hegel's aesthetics, particularly Hegel's understanding of art as a unique representation of the free spirit. On the other hand, Genthe's artistic vision, eye for composition, and subject line closely resembled the work of his mentor and distant relative, the renowned German painter Adolf Menzel. 

    Invariably, Genthe's ability to capture beauty – be that the movement of a dancer, a facial expression, or a field sprinkled with ruby-red poppies – also reflected his unique skill and ingenious technique known as the Genthe style. Guided by the principle "to 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," Genthe was not only able to capture something of the real character and personality of his sitters, but also became "the first professional photographer to give people portraits that were more than mere surface records." Much of his technique was developed during his early attempts at photography when, fascinated with San Francisco Chinatown, Genthe would spend countless hours waiting for the right combination of lighting and people-composition to occur. A number of Genthe's Chinatown photographs are on display at the GHI.

    In addition to spiritual radiance and nobility of features, which he captured in many of his portraits, Genthe saw beauty in the graceful freedom of movement. Most prominently, he associated such type of beauty with the development of modern dance. In modern dance, particularly the artistic vision and ground-breaking work of Isadora Duncan and her students, Genthe saw the birth of an authentic American artistic tradition. Meticulously, in the course of three decades, he saw and recorded with his camera the blossoming of this artistic tradition. As a true artist, in his work on dance he was guided by the principle that "Unless a pose indicates the preceding as well as the following movement, be it rapid or slow, a suggestion of motion - fluent, dynamic, natural - cannot be conveyed." The GHI was fortunate to have dancers Cynthia Word and Ingrid Zimmer of Word Dance Theater perform four dances in the style of Isadora Duncan during the exhibition opening.

    The camera – Genthe remarked repeatedly – teaches us how to see. And as one may add: Genthe's camera teaches us how to see beauty, and beauty is everywhere where there is a freedom of expression and movement. The exhibition "Visions of Beauty: Arnold Genthe and the Art of Photography" will be on view at the German Historical Institute until April 30 (opening hours Monday-Thursday 9-5 pm, Friday 9-3 pm).

    Jessica Csoma

  • Exhibition Description

    Genthe's life was art. Wherever he went. And everything in it was warm and beautiful. 
    And when it wasn't, he wasn't there.
    - Dorothea Lange

    One of the leading American photographers of the early twentieth century, Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) devoted much of his career and professional work to recording and spreading the ‘gospel of beauty.' Born in a prominent intellectual family in Germany and with a doctorate in philology, Genthe was deeply influenced by the tradition of German aesthetics as well as by studies of Chinese and Japanese philosophy and art. His intellectual pursuits, intricately intertwined with his youthful aspiration to become an artist, informed his entire photographic work and career.

    While a student at the Wilhelm Gymnasium in Hamburg, where his father was the principal, Genthe received comprehensive training in five languages and in the Western classics. Under the guidance of some of the leading intellectuals of the day, he was also inspired to study Chinese and Japanese philosophy and arts. At the age of nineteen, dreaming to become a painter, Genthe sought the advice and commendation of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century German painters and a distant family relative, Adolf Menzel. 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." Genthe proceeded to enroll at the University of Jena where he received a doctorate in classical philology.
    He first sailed to America in 1895, with an offer to work as a tutor for the family of Baron J. Henrich von Schroeder. He saw the appointment as a propitious opportunity to postpone an immanent academic career life in Germany. By 1897, Genthe knew that he belonged in America:

    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.

    When the twenty-eight year old German scholar decided to support himself as a professional portrait photographer in San Francisco, 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 - were immediately outstanding, powerfully revealing unseen visions of beauty - be it a seemingly ordinary view of a hill, of a city street, or an individual's expression. 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.

    Arnold Genthe approached photography as an artist who was trained in the high aesthetic traditions of nineteenth century Germany, as a philosopher who read Hegel, Goethe, and Confucius; 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. 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, including many of the leading artists, dancers, presidents, and businessmen such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Jack London, Greta Garbo, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Sarah Bernhardt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan.

    Operated by a philosopher-artist, Genthe's camera saw beauty as indelible from and most powerfully explicated through movement. Albeit fleeting and difficult to capture, beauty-as-movement would gloriously appear even in the seemingly ordinary and mundane settings: a gathering of people at the market place, children crossing the street, the smile of a sitter caught unawares by the camera, or the gracious gesture of a dancer. Genthe's exceptional technique and ability to relate beauty-as-movement resulted in momentous and pioneering photographic work and numerous publications on both dance and everyday street life.

    Drawing on a minute portion from a vast archival collection, this exhibit explores some of Genthe's late nineteenth-early twentieth century visions of beauty.

  • Invitation

    Join us at the exhibition opening for a performance of four original Isadora Duncan dances to music by Chopin, Brahms, and Debussy.

    For Arnold Genthe, dance, with its "nobility of gestures" and "fleeting magic designs made by the human body," held special place in the pantheon of beauty. The leading inspiration and central figure in the quest to visually capture and record the rhythm and charm of dance was Isadora Duncan. To Genthe and his contemporaries, she was nothing less than a prophet, liberator and revolution in the art of dancing. As he wrote in his auto-biography, "hers was not a mere talent finding an outlet through accepted technique, but the flame of genius driving its way through the narrow conventions" of the established dance forms.

    Inspired by Isadora Duncan's innovative and humanistic approach to art, Word Dance Theater is dedicated to continuing the legacy of Ms. Duncan's revolutionary spirit. By boldly integrating the talents of dancers, playwrights, actors, musicians, multi-media and production artists, Word Dance Theater creates original and dynamic theatrical productions that test creative boundaries for artists and bring new theatrical experiences to audiences.

    Click on image to enlarge or print (pdf).