Merchant and Body Guard, Old Chinatown, San Francisco

Arnold Gentheca. 1896-1906, printed ca. 1920

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
San Francisco, United States

Arnold Genthe, a well-educated European émigré in San Francisco, became intrigued by the city’s Chinatown after reading a handbook that cautioned against visiting the quarter without a guide. Fascinated by the distinctive sights and sounds he discovered in the area, and frustrated by the dull scenes and stilted poses available on postcards, he began taking amateur photographs, eventually accumulating over 200 glass negatives. Because his cameras were small and discreet and could be taken into privileged places covertly, Genthe was able to photograph people who would otherwise shy away from the camera in the course of their day-to-day lives. The resulting pictures offer rare insights into the area’s active street life at the turn of the century, and also serve as important documents of Chinatown before its destruction in the 1906 earthquake.


  • Title: Merchant and Body Guard, Old Chinatown, San Francisco
  • Creator: Arnold Genthe
  • Creator Lifespan: 1869 - 1942
  • Creator Nationality: American, born Germany
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: New Milford, Connecticut
  • Creator Birth Place: Berlin, Germany
  • Date Created: ca. 1896-1906, printed ca. 1920
  • Physical Dimensions: w320.55 x h225.3 in (image)
  • Type: photograph
  • External Link: SFMOMA
  • Medium: Gelatin silver print
  • Subject: San Francisco, United States
  • Place Part Of: United States
  • More Info: More About This Artist - SFMOMA
  • Credit Line: Accessions Committee Fund purchase
  • About the Artist: German-born Arnold Genthe obtained a doctorate in philology and linguistics before leaving Europe for San Francisco, where he opened a portrait studio in 1897. Genthe's studio and equipment were destroyed in the earthquake and fires of 1906, but his photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown survived and were published in 1908. He traveled widely before relocating to New York in 1911; there he established a thriving business making portraits of cultural and political celebrities. Genthe published Impressions of Isadora Duncan in 1929 and an autobiography, As I Remember, in 1936.

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