Woman in Focus: Jessie Tarbox Beals
Had she never laid her eyes on a camera, Jessie Tarbox Beals might have made a life as a teacher. In 1887, at the age of seventeen, she had just moved from her home of Ontario, Canada to pursue a teaching job in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.1 The daughter of a successful sewing machine manufacturer who had lost the family fortune, she understood the importance of being independent and self reliant. She would later write how “feminine, delicate, Dresden China type of women get nowhere in business or professional life.”2 Teaching, like the few other occupations available to women at this time, was self limiting and low paying. To supplement her income, she sold magazine subscriptions, and after winning a subscription selling contest in 1888, she was awarded a small rudimentary black box camera, which she soon traded up for the revolutionary new Kodak camera.
Earlier that year, Kodak had begun producing smaller handheld cameras marketed with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Unlike earlier plate glass technology which required a longer development time, this new camera included a preloaded roll of film, which, when finished, was mailed back to the factory along with the camera for printing and reloading. They were marketed to amateur photography enthusiasts, especially women. Kodak aptly advertised to women in such a way that they became both the consumers and producers of photography. At a time when other artistic media such as painting and sculpture required extensive training in male-dominated academic spheres, photography could be learned through technical manuals or an apprenticeship in a photography studio. Paired with the public’s growing demand for commemorating milestones such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations, the camera offered women a pathway to some degree of self-determination. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, female photographers would contribute to portraiture, fashion, fine arts, news, and social commentary. Jessie Tarbox Beals would differentiate herself in the field not only through the versatility of her photos, but through her hustle.
Beals quit teaching in 1900 to embark on a full-time photography career. Accompanied by her assistant and husband Alfred Beals, she traveled the east coast advertising her services. Her lens captured cross sections of American life in fairgrounds, factories, landscapes, and homes. Her first credited tagline appeared in Vermont’s Windham Country Reformer, establishing her as the first published female photojournalist. This freelancing lifestyle did not provide a stable income, however. In 1902, Jessie was hired as a staff photographer by the Buffalo Inquirer and the Buffalo Courier, making her one of the first full time female staff photographers in the nation.
It was during her tenure in Buffalo that she demonstrated her perseverance for getting the shot, even if that meant breaking the rules. During the 1903 murder trial of a prominent Buffalo businessman, cameras were banned from the courtroom. Noticing an open transom overlooking the courtroom, Jessie, clad in a corset and long skirts, climbed atop a bookshelf while carrying a thirty-pound camera. She was the only photographer to get a picture of the courtroom, and her exclusive image was printed as front-page national news.3
Beals’s celebrity as a local journalist was not enough to satisfy her ambitions. In 1904, she quit the Buffalo papers and left for St. Louis with a plan to cover the St. Louis World’s Fair. Located on 1,200 acres of ground and attended by 20 million people over an eight-month period, the fair was an international exposition, showcasing the latest in technology, agriculture, art, and culture. For an emerging female photographer, the fair presented an opportunity to achieve national recognition, make money, and “test just how far the designation of lady with a camera would let them go.”4 But none of the local papers would hire her, with some even questioning her abilities as a female photographer.
Undeterred, she managed to procure a permit that allowed her to take photos only before the Exposition opened to the public and prohibited the sale of any photographs taken before the fair’s opening. Disregarding the restrictions, she roamed the fairgrounds, photographing subjects the way she wanted. This can be seen most prominently in her photos of the Indigenous Peoples exhibition. Now considered a racist practice equivalent to a human zoo, tribes of indigenous peoples from around the world were brought over to live in recreated villages. Fair guidelines called for these communities to always be photographed in staged positions, but Beals “aimed to capture images of the fair as she saw it, rather than she was supposed to have seen it.”5 Her scenes of domestic life and daily interaction between the different tribes presented some of the rare “candid” moments taken at the fair and earned her national syndication, including a residency at the exposition. Press and visitors alike marveled at her feats, which included photographing from a twenty-foot-tall step ladder, relentlessly pursuing President Theodore Roosevelt, and sneaking onto a hot air balloon to capture a bird’s eye view of the fair.
Her success in St. Louis instilled in her the confidence to pursue a career in New York City. Taking over the lease of a failed photography studio, she started by offering portraiture. But she soon diversified her portfolio, taking pictures of everyone and everything from celebrities to children to cats. She captured images of courtyard gardens and cigar shops in The Village and rainswept street scenes in Madison Square Park. Beals continued to improve her skills, teaching herself how to use flash powder, which gave her photos a defined, sharp, and realistic focus. Her skill as a flash photographer caught the attention of organizations such as the Charity Organization Society, which used photojournalism as a tool for Progressive reform in poor immigrant neighborhoods. Producing these images required photographers to carry heavy equipment up narrow tenement stairwells and hallways and the skill to use flash powder in small dark homes. Alongside Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines, Beals was one of the few photographers of the period able to do this kind of work. But unlike Riis and Hines, Beals never aligned herself to social justice causes and only took these assignments for a two-year period between 1910–1912.
By 1920, Beals had opened a larger studio, and her work was featured in publications and exhibitions across the US and Canada. She was regarded as a trailblazer by women who wanted to pursue a career in photography. But being an inspiration would also prove to be a double-edged sword. By the 1920s, there were more female photographers than when Beals had started out, and, unlike her, they often had a specialty. Beals would later admit that her diverse portfolio never brought her the financial success or stability she had hoped for. “One must specialize,” she lamented. “My advice is pick up one thing, babies or signposts, and stick to that subject. A specialist may always charge for a higher price.”6 Faced with increasing competition, Beals uprooted to California to photograph the estates and gardens of the emerging high society. Unable to find proper storage, she offloaded thousands of her plate glass negatives, selling them to manufacturers for repurposing, resulting in the permanent loss of a massive body of her work.
Despite a promising start in California, the onset of the Great Depression diminished most of her prospects. By 1930, Beals was back in New York working and living in a studio on West 11th Street. Now in her 60s, she had more difficulty keeping up with the fast pace and the physical demands of the job. She continued to photograph until illness forced her to stop. Having exhausted her savings on medical expenses, Beals was admitted to the charity ward at Bellevue Hospital, where she died on May 31, 1942 at the age of 71.
The woman whose photos captured all facets of American life from presidents to celebrities to street children faded into obscurity. Her work would eventually come to the forefront again almost forty years later. Due to a renewed public interest in social documentary photography, Beals’s photos of tenement life cropped up alongside more prominent works by Riis and Hines. Her work and story enticed photographer and anthropologist Alexander Alland who, with help from Beals’s daughter Nanette, was able to locate many of her lost negatives, along with her diary and personal papers. In 1978, Alland published her biography Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photography. The book shed light on a woman whose life was as eclectic and far-reaching as the photos she took. Jessie Tarbox Beals never possessed a distinct style or body of work, which made her all the more difficult to identify and categorize. “I opened too many keys to too many doors,” she once said.7 While Beals may have seen this choice as a failure, to have been the first to open so many doors is a testament to a woman and an artist undefined.
- Alexander Alland Sr., Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer (Camera Graphic Press, 1978), 17. Return to text.
- Alland, Jessie Tarbox Beals, 56. Return to text.
- Alland, 36. Return to text.
- Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 265. Return to text.
- Danica Medak-Saltzman, “Transnational Indigenous Exchange: Rethinking Global Interactions of Indigenous Peoples at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition,” American Quarterly 62, No. 3, (September 2010), 598. Return to text.
- Alland, 80. Return to text.
- Alland, 12. Return to text.
Rachel is the Manager of School Programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street where she teaches Immigration and Jewish-American History. She has worked as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, The Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York Transit Museum. She had written articles for History Today Magazine with a focus on New York, immigration and women's history.