Over the course of the Spring 2016 semester, students in ART 3573: History of Photography visited the OSU Museum of Art four times, seeing over 65 works from the permanent collection up close. Each visit, they selected one work to research further. This spring and summer, the blog features outstanding examples of students’ research and writing about the works they chose. Our goals are to contribute to public awareness of the OSUMA’s photography collection, and to increase our knowledge about that collection. This week’s post is by Holly Heckman.
Arnold Genthe’s photograph, Child with Basket depicts a Chinese urban child on the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Genthe did mostly studio portrait photos, but became famous with his book Pictures of Old Chinatown, which portrayed Chinese American culture in San Francisco at the time. Genthe knew that whites were generally ignored in Chinatown, so he took advantage of that fact by going in with his camera and taking photographs of what he saw. His photos are valued as documentation of this culture due to the fact that a lot of Chinatown was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires. However, some of the pictures Genthe took seem to evoke emotion more than other documentary photographs might – Child with Basket especially. An audience of 1906 would have understood this photograph as a way to view Chinese American culture (something they likely would not have otherwise been exposed to); however, the audience may not have fully understood the extend to which this photograph captures the rarity of children in Chinatown, as well as the harsh constraints placed on the people living in Chinatown.
Child with Basket has a humane and intimate feeling because the viewer is shown a child alone on the streets. The photograph is not romanticized in the way that some other documentary photography was around this time, when depicting life of other cultures. However, I wonder why the child is alone. The harsh limitations on Chinese American culture meant that residents of Chinatown had many constraints put on their way of living. Women and children were fairly rare in Chinatown—families were extremely limited by U.S. laws, and were difficult to support given the environment. As a result, children were highly cherished within the culture, which makes Genthe’s photograph that much more powerful of an image.
Photographer Allan Sekula stated about photographic portraiture, “We are confronting a double system: a system of representation functioning both honorifically and repressively.” Genthe’s Child with Basket is a perfect example of what Sekula was talking about. The culture of Chinese American people was honorably being shown to Americans as cultural anthropology photography—depicting their clothing, way of life, food, etc. However, I think it can also be argued that the photographs of Pictures of Old Chinatown can be seen as repressive as well. Contemporary audience’s knowledge of Chinese American culture may not have gone any farther than what Genthe’s pictures showed. People were likely not aware of just how harsh the limiting laws placed on this particular culture were. Genthe’s photographs captured a moment in American history, as well as Chinese Americans and their way of life.
Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986): 3-64.
“San Francisco Chinatown.” UC Berkeley Library. January 31, 2005.