Photographer Arnold Genthe’s published photographs of 1920s New Orleans captured the city’s old-world charm for a national audience.
German-born Arnold Genthe was an internationally known photographer who is perhaps best remembered for his photographs of San Francisco, where he had been living since 1897, particularly his series of Chinatown and the 1906 earthquake.¹ He was also an accomplished portrait photographer known for capturing his often-famous subjects in natural, unstudied poses.² Genthe traveled to New Orleans twice in hopes of capturing the city’s old-world charm before it was lost, and in 1926 he published a collection of photographs of the Vieux Carré entitled Impressions of Old New Orleans.³ Local author Grace King provided the foreword.⁴
Genthe’s New Orleans images were taken in the pictorialist style, a soft-focus technique that enhanced the romantic quality of his subjects.⁵ In the darkroom, he erased modern intrusions such as signs and electric lines to emphasize the city’s timelessness.⁶ In a review of Genthe’s book, the Times-Picayune wrote that:
What he has done…is to capture much of the glimmering magic of the old Quarter. The architectural graces of Creole structure, the mysterious light and shadow, the emotional aura of a faded urban civilization unequalled in America, the drowsy, comfortable atmosphere of a semi-tropical city, the charm of old romance that hangs about the Vieux Carre like perfume among the odors—Mr. Genthe has got his lens on it all and developed it like a wizard.⁷
At the time of the book’s publication, the Vieux Carré was in the midst of a cultural renaissance after decades of neglect.⁸ The first iteration of the Vieux Carré Commission had just been formed the year before.⁹ Genthe’s work contributed to this renewed appreciation of New Orleans’ unique historic fabric, and today it provides a rare glimpse of the city on the cusp of the modern era.
1. Raymond M. Lane, “Arnold Genthe’s ‘Visions of Beauty,’” washingtonpost.com, February 7, 2014.
3. Leslie Gale Parr, “Arnold Genthe,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010-). Article published January 12, 2011.
4. Arnold Genthe, Impressions of Old New Orleans (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926).
5. Parr, “Arnold Genthe.”
7. “Literature and Less,” The Times-Picayune, December 19, 1926.
8. John Shelton Reed, “French Quarter Renaissance,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010-). Article published June 4, 2013.
9. Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “History of the Vieux Carré Commission.”