Three children standing on a sidewalk, Chinatown, San Francisco
Purchase; Genthe Estate; 1942 or 1943.
Arnold Genthe was born in Berlin. His father was a professor of Latin and Greek. Genthe followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a classically trained scholar; he received a doctorate in philology in 1894 from the University of Jena. After emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 to work as a tutor for the son of Baron and Baroness J. Henrich von Schroeder, he taught himself photography. He was intrigued by the Chinatown part of the city and photographed, often secretly, its inhabitants. About 200 of his Chinatown pictures survive, and these comprise the only known photographic depictions of the area before the 1906 earthquake. The San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Genthe's studio, but he rebuilt. He was a friend of George Sterling, Jack London, Harry Leon Wilson, Ambrose Bierce, and Mary Austin. He was appointed in 1907 to the Board of Directors of the Art Gallery in Monterey’s luxury Hotel Del Monte, where he ensured that the work of important regional art photographers, such as Laura Adams Armer and Anne Brigman, was displayed with his own prints. In 1911 he moved to New York City, where he remained until his death of a heart attack in 1942. He worked primarily in portraiture, and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and John D. Rockefeller all sat for him. His photos of Greta Garbo were credited with boosting her career. He also photographed dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Audrey Munson, and Ruth St. Denis, and his photos were featured in the 1916 book, The Book of the Dance.
In the 19th century, a majority of Chinese immigrants were single men who worked for a while and returned home. At first, they were attracted to North America by the gold rush in California. A relatively large group of Chinese immigrated to the United States between the start of the California gold rush in 1849 and 1882, before federal law stopped their immigration. After the gold rush, Chinese immigrants worked as agricultural laborers, on railroad construction crews throughout the West, and in low-paying industrial jobs. Soon, many opened their own businesses such as restaurants, laundries, and other personal service concerns. With the onset of hard economic times in the 1870s, European immigrants and Americans began to compete for the jobs traditionally reserved for the Chinese. Such competition was accompanied by anti-Chinese sentiment, riots, and pressure, especially in California, for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the United States. The result was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. This Act virtually ended Chinese immigration for nearly a century.