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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Pioneer Woman Photographer Was Portuguese

July 18, 1944: Photographers and reporters at the site of the Port Chicago munitions explosion. Virginia de Carvalho is in the foreground. De Carvalho's great grandfather, Januario Antonio de Carvalho, was a prominent member of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong during the late 19th century. He arrived in Hong Kong from Macao in 1842 and, later, became the Chief Cashier of the Colonial Treasurer of Hong Kong.

Photo: San Francisco Chronicle


When Virginia de Carvalho had a camera in her hand, she was a tenacious journalist.

Covering one local boxing match, she reportedly slithered her 5-foot frame under the ropes, set up her camera for a better shot, and was dragged out of the ring by her feet.

“Other photographers remember a day at Seals Stadium when the pitcher hauled up in the middle of delivery to find Virginia lying flat at his feet with her camera aimed to get a new angle,” The Chronicle reported in 1946. “Because she was light and because she was small she made a lot of her pictures over the heads of crowds — sitting on a reporter’s shoulders.”

Reportedly the first female newspaper photographer on the West Coast, de Carvalho garnered a lot of attention, working five years at The San Francisco Chronicle in the 1940s. But then her story was lost in time. Until recently, the few de Carvalho photos uploaded into The Chronicle’s digital archive — including iconic 1945 images of the V-J Day celebration and riots in San Francisco — had been mistakenly attributed to her brother. And with her tragic death at the age of 29, much of her life remains a mystery.

Virginia de Carvalho was rediscovered by accident last year, when Chronicle librarian Bill Van Niekerken was searching for something else, saw her name, then searched for her obituary. That provided leads for myself and Van Niekerken to more images and articles — and to a career that included sports coverage, portrait photography and breaking news.

Aug. 14-15, 1945: Virginia de Carvalho took photographs of revelers on Market Street celebrating V-J Day in 1945.

Photo: Virginia de Carvalho / The Chronicle 1945


Most of the facts about de Carvalho were outlined in her Dec. 12, 1946, obituary.

She was born in Hong Kong, and worked at age 16 as a cartoonist for the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury. De Carvalho joined The Chronicle in 1941 as a copy boy, replacing a male employee who went to fight in World War II. By 1943 she was taking photos for the newspaper, initially sent out to amateur sporting events.

The photos themselves arguably offer a better window into her personality, both as a versatile and innovative photographer, and someone who was minimized for her gender the moment she entered a room.

She was referred far too many times as the newspaper’s “girl photographer.” (Even once was too often. De Carvalho was at least 25 when she began her professional photo career.) And she often became the subject of newspaper reports, through no fault of her own.

Oct. 23, 1943: Conductor Thomas Beecham is photographed by The San Francisco Chronicle's Virginia de Carvalho.

Photo: Virginia de Carvalho / San Francisco Chronicle


When opera and symphony conductor Thomas Beecham saw de Carvalho in a rehearsal room for an upcoming performance of “Carmen,” he mistook the photographer for a little girl, before kicking her out of the space.

“Get rid of the cute little pest,” Beecham reportedly said.

De Carvalho took photos throughout the confrontation; every frame shows the conductor casting suspicious glances in her direction.

Chronicle sports columnists gleefully mocked her, sometimes writing more about Virginia de Carvalho than the actual event.

Yehudi Menuhin, who debuted with the San Francisco Symphony at age 6, is photographed here in 1945.

Photo: Virginia de Carvalho / San Francisco Chronicle


Hopelessly old school columnist Will Connolly was particularly condescending, quoting a source who said de Carvalho talked while golfers were concentrating, and “changed plates with such violence that the click of her apparatus disturbed the nerveless athletes about to putt.”

He added: “Virginia must have been a pest and all we can offer in her defense is that she is a young lady new to the job of taking sports pictures, although she is a journeyman photographer who hasn’t quite fathomed the intricate etiquette of golf.”

(The Chronicle’s golf writer on the scene later contradicted Connolly’s account, calling it secondhand and mostly fiction.)

Photo: Virginia de Carvalho/ San Francisco Chronicle


But as years passed, de Carvalho’s photos began showing up outside of sports and features, and they tell the true story of her drive and talent. She was one of two Chronicle photographers at the July 17, 1944, Port Chicago munitions explosion along Suisun Bay. De Carvalho can be seen in one Chronicle photo, in pants and a sport coat, with camera in hand and her foot braced on some of the wreckage.

The photographer’s greatest moment was on V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945, which became one of the deadliest days in San Francisco history when riots broke out. The assignment was Market Street, where de Carvalho took dozens of photos of revelers celebrating the victory over the Japanese and end of World War II. She captured the emotion, love and eventual violence that carried the day, winning an Associated Press prize.

With photographers including Joe Rosenthal and Bob Campbell returning from the war, de Carvalho left The Chronicle in 1946 to start a portrait studio in San Francisco. From there, the mysteries continue. De Carvalho died before the end of that year, with little explanation how.

Virginia de Carvalho in 1943.

Photo: San Francisco Chronicle 1943


“Virginia de Carvalho, first woman newspaper photographer on the West Coast, died in St. Francis Hospital yesterday where she had been ill for 10 weeks,” The Chronicle reported on Dec. 12, 1946.

De Carvalho’s name appeared in The Chronicle just once in the decades after her death. She was briefly mentioned when her father, Arthur de Carvalho, died in 1952. Her brother, George de Carvalho, continued to work at The Chronicle, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1952 covering an extortion racket that preyed on the Chinese community. He died in 1994.

But the story doesn’t end here. Now that we know what to look for, new de Carvalho images seem to surface every few months from The Chronicle archive. Photos of the Market Street movie theater row have been found, with the name “DE CARVALHO” etched on the side of the negatives themselves.

Last week we found a photo of a woman struck by a car in what is now the Tenderloin. De Carvalho dashed to the scene, chronicling one of San Francisco’s earliest car-on-pedestrian injuries. She captured a lazy 1940s afternoon on Ocean Beach, and shot a stunning portrait of virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin, himself 28 years old.

Like a restored piece of visual art, Virginia de Carvalho’s story will be reconstructed again, one photo discovery at a time.

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