Arnold Genthe was born in Berlin in 1869. After earning a Ph.D. in classical philology, he moved to the United States in 1895. He worked as a tutor, but he really loved photography. On his days off, he spent his time taking photographs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Over time, his work became recognized and he opened his own studio. It was subsequently destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Some of the Genthe’s most beautiful work was taken in the aftermath of the disaster. Other notable works include his photographs of the Chinatown opium dens of San Francisco, Isadora Duncan’s dance troupe, and photographs of the Japanese from a trip abroad.

Today, however, I want to profile the work Genthe did using autochrome between 1906 – 1912. Color photography, as we know it today, became available on a wide scale in the 1960s. It was not affordable until the 1970s. Professional photographers had access to color photography much earlier. The famous Lumière brothers invented a process to take color photographs which they patented in 1903. This process was called autochrome. These photographs are fascinating, and bring the past to life more vividly than most photographs are able to do.

The following photographs are from the Library of Congress:

Boy in the gardens of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio – 1912
Interior of J.P. Morgan’s library – 1912
Boy blowing bubbles outdoors – 1906
Sunday at Rye Beach, New York – 1911
California golden poppies – 1906
The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Mamaroneck, New York – 1912
Couple seated in a car parked under large pine trees – 1906

Every day we hear of the serious opioid crisis that is ravaging many areas of the country. Usually people start off legitimately, taking prescribed pain medications for an injury, and soon they become dependent upon the drug to function normally. Opium addiction today generally translates either to medications like fentanyl, or illegal substances like heroin. People take them to dull pain, or to lower anxiety, or just to slip away for a little while.

Drugs derived from opium are not new, and they have many positive uses as well as the deadly ones. Morphine, for instance, is the most effective pain killer for terminally ill patients. But in the early days, it was quite a different experience.

Opium came to San Francisco in 1861, about 113,000 pounds of it. Opium dens were established in Chinatown and quickly became successful businesses. More and more dens opened as immigrants continued to flow into the country to join the California Gold Rush. Usually these establishments were owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.

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