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Carlo Gentile, Gold Rush Photographer, 1863-1866

By Ronald A. Greene

Review By David Mattison

November 3, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 152-153

Like most colonial-era Victoria photographers, Carlo Gentile arrived and departed with little notice. Born in Italy, he eventually found his way to California around 1860. Having reached Victoria from San Francisco in 1862, he was active as a photographer only between 1863 and 1866, when he purportedly returned to San Francisco. He briefly carried on a photographic business there before moving on. His career, not unlike that of many others in the late nineteenth century, consisted of wandering from one commercial opportunity to another, including the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. While living in the US southwest, Gentile — pronounced Gentilly — even managed to purchase a young Apache (Yavapai) boy whom he raised as a son and who became famous in his own right as the physician Carlos Montezuma. In 1877, Gentile finally settled in Chicago where he carried on with his photography. He died in 1893 and left behind his adopted son and a fourth wife.

While little known outside of photographic history circles, Gentile’s work during his brief time in Victoria was highly significant. Unlike his competitors, who were chiefly studio portraiture photographers, Gentile travelled widely between 1864 and 1866, visiting the Alberni Valley, Leech River during its short gold rush, the Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo, Comox, New Westminster, Kamloops, and parts of the Cariboo region via the Harrison Lake and Fraser Canyon routes. The latter journeys in 1865 were made partly in the company of Governor Frederick Seymour. During his last active year as a Victoria photographer, Gentile also travelled to Washington Territory where he created the “earliest known views of Seattle” (123). Whether for commercial purposes or out of humanitarian interest, Gentile’s studio and outdoor portrait work included many First Nations individuals and groups.

Greene’s welcome study of Gentile’s life and photographs is one of only a handful devoted to nineteenth-century BC photographers. Remarkably, it is also the second book on Gentile (see also Cesare Marino, The Remarkable Carlo Gentile: Italian Photographer of the American Frontier [Nevada City, CA: Carl Mautz, 1998]). The genesis of Greene’s book was a photographic album he owns whose origin seems as mysterious as do parts of Gentile’s life. Greene’s initial intent was to publish the contents of his album (which was last owned by the historian and journalist Bruce A McKelvie), but fortunately he acted on a suggestion to expand his scope so as to provide greater visual and historical context to Gentile’s work. Greene, a retired entrepreneur and well known local and numismatic historian, has very capably and thoroughly pulled together the diverse traces of Gentile’s time in Victoria.

Following a short introduction to Gentile’s life, the photographs are presented. Greene chose to group them by geographic location or subject matter, many with detailed captions. The photographs from his album are designated with the prefix “DP” (for Destrube Photo), and the detailed and worthwhile listing of “Known or Attributed Gentile Photographs,” which precedes the index, is organized by the book’s page numbers. This listing, or concordance, includes the contents of the Arthur Nonus Birch album located at Library and Archives Canada; photographs located at the British Columbia Archives, although none is specifically identified as belonging to the Engle album; and photographs from the ethnological collection at the Royal British Columbia Museum. While some maps are reproduced in colour, all the photographs are black and white. No glass plate negatives by Gentile are known to have survived. Given the difficulties of working with the wet collodion process that Gentile favoured, and Gentile’s own uneven technique, it is not surprising that the quality of the reproductions is not always the best. For comparative purposes, an interested reader might examine the digitized contents of the Arthur Nonus Birch Fonds (R9701-0-1-E), which consists of an album at Library and Archives Canada, and the high-resolution “Charles Gentile Early British Columbia Photos,” which are part of the Uno Langmann Collection at the University of British Columbia Library. The latter are not included in Greene’s concordance of Gentile photographs.

Also useful for further studies are the reproductions of all known versos of carte-de-visite-sized photographs and the endnotes. An index rounds out the volume. Gentile has for a long time deserved a more comprehensive treatment of his short time in Victoria, and Greene has now provided it.

Carlo Gentile, Gold Rush Photographer, 1863-1866
Ronald A. Greene
Victoria: Greene Frogge Press, 2015. 158 pp. $75.00 paper