Photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) emigrated in 1895 from his native Germany to San Francisco, California. A doctoral student of classical philosophy in Germany, Genthe impulsively decided, on the cusp of an academic career, to take a position as a tutor in San Francisco for a year. He fell in love with the city and ended up settling there, teaching himself photography and quickly gaining recognition for his views of Chinatown street life. After 1906, he switched his artistic focus mainly to portraits circles.
Genthe's portrait photography really came into its own when he moved his studio to Manhattan in 1911. There he ran in society circles, with subjects and friends often one and the same. Some of the great theater and film actresses of the day appeared in his portraits (Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Julia Marlowe), as did socialites such as Mary Astor and artists and writers like Childe Hassam, Jack London, and Ezra Pound. Early modern dancers were a favorite subject of his as well, and he captured such pioneers as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Anna Pavlowa as they pushed social and cultural boundaries.
Never married, Genthe was seen as something of a ladies' man - indeed, he seemed never to lack female subjects for his portraits, some photographed in states of undress that even now might be considered risqué. An early 20th-century cartoon by Haig Patigan shows Genthe with three young "Gibson Girls" and is titled "Herr Doctor Taking Peaches"; another illustration, by Maynard Dixon, shows Genthe behind the camera, seemingly working his magic on a young woman in a filmy gown. Yet Genthe was not known as a cad; he seemed to have a true appreciation of the beauty and intellect of women young and old alike. Once, when asked to name the most beautiful woman he had ever photographed, he surprised his questioner by telling him it was the actress Eleanora Duse - when she was 64.
Genthe's many travels (to Latin America, the Far East, and Europe, which he photographed as well), add to what seems to have been a charmed and exotic life. He published a number of books of photographs, including The Book of the Dance, Pictures of Old Chinatown, and Impressions of Old New Orleans. A friend once said to him, "You certainly are a queer duck - a Don Juan, a Hermit Monk, a Chinese Sage, a University Professor - all rolled into one." To this he replied: "Well, maybe. Of this I am sure: I have never been bored, and I daresay I have had as much out of life as is coming to any man."