Portuguese: Woman Pioneer Photojournalist in U.S.
Updated: Jul 12
July 18, 1944: Photographers and reporters at the site of the Port Chicago munitions explosion. Virginia de Carvalho is in the foreground. (Photo by San Francisco Chronicle)
The Chronicle published this story by Peter Hartlaub on August 22, 2019. Chronicle librarian Bill Van Niekerken contributed to this story. Peter Hartlaub is the San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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.
V-J Day celebration in San Francisco, August 14-15 1945 End of World War II, Japan surrenders
(Photo by Virginia de Carvalho/The Chronicle, 1945)
Most of the facts about de Carvalho were outlined in her December 12, 1946, obituary.
V-E Day celebration in San Francisco, May 1945, World War II, Germany surrenders (Negative says False Armistice, Union Square) (Photo by Virginia de Carvalho/ San Francisco Chronicle)
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 to 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.
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 ran November 27, 1949 and October 21, 1951 in This World) /Photo by
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.)
Explosion at Port Chicago while loading ammunition onto ships would kill 320, July 17, 1944
(Photo by 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, September 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.
V-J Day celebration in San Francisco, August 14-15 1945, End of World War II, Japan surrenders. Men standing on top of a bus (Photo by Virginia de Carvalho/San Francisco Chronicle)
“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 December 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.
San Francisco Chronicle staff photographer Virginia de Carvalho in a 1943 photo. (Photo by The Chronicle)
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.
People out at Ocean Beach on a warm day in June 1945 (Photo by Virginia de Carvalho/The Chronicle)
The following was written by Cynthia Adina Kirkwood.
Virginia 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.
Januario de Carvalho married Mariana Joaquina Braga, daughter of another prominent Portuguese family (Braga, originally from Macao), resident of Hong Kong.
They had six children, including Edmundo Arthur (b. 1860), who married Clara Evangelista Noronha (granddaughter of Delfino Noronha, owner of the colonial printing press and leader of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong) and later became the Chief Cashier of Hong Kong like his father, according to Far East Currents (April 13, 2013).
According to the Wikipedia entry for Januario Antonio de Carvalho:
“As the Second World War approached, Edmundo left Hong Kong for France and later Portugal. He and Clara had two sons, Robert and Arthur. Robert /Los Angeles) died at the age of 30. Arthur (San Francisco) had three children: George (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle), Virginia (first female photojournalist for the San Francisco Chronicle), and Juanita. Descendants of Robert and Arthur live today in California, Washington state, and Ohio.”
When Virginia’s younger brother, George, won the Pulitzer for “a series of stories last fall on the Communist China ransom racket which extorted millions of dollars from Chinese living in the United States”, the photographer already had been dead six years. At the time of George’s recognition with the highest honor in U.S. journalism, The Chronicle (May 6, 1952) wrote:
“De Carvalho, a 31-year-old reporter, who has traveled considerably throughout the world, was born in Hong Kong and educated at Gonzaga College in Shanghai and the Sorbonne in Paris.
“He joined The Chronicle on July 4, 1938 as a copyboy, and in April, 1939, became a rewrite man for the This World section.
“He spent three years with the U.S. Army in World War II and served overseas with the 82nd Airborne Division as a staff sergeant. He made two combat jumps, fought through four campaigns and was wounded four times.
“After coming out of the war with U.S., French and Belgian citations, de Carvalho covered Western Europe from the Channel to the Polish border on a six-month tour as correspondent for The Chronicle.
“He became a cityside reporter in January, 1950. Early in the next year, he was sent to Korea by The Chronicle and wrote a series of vivid articles about Americans fighting in the war zone."
George carried on the family tradition.
(Photo by Virginia de Carvalho/The Chronicle)