Worth a Thousand Words: 4 Trailblazing Women Photojournalists

jessie Tarbox Beals outside the White House

Though Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange pioneered modern photojournalism in the first half of the 20th century, the field continues to be male dominated. As we learn more about them, along with the two other trailblazing American women photojournalists presented here (Jessie Tarbox Beals and Ruth Gruber), it’s worth musing on why this persists.

A photojournalist is a reporter with a camera. Some photojournalists (past and present) have only taken pictures, and a different reporter writes the text that goes with them. Others take photos as well as write articles.


The challenges of photojournalism

In some ways, a photojournalist’s job can be trickier than that of a text-only reporter. They need to consider whether a photo might be an invasion of privacy — for example, a shot of someone who’s injured, or even dead.

Decisions must be made in a flash — pardon the pun. When news is happening in real time, there are no do-overs!

News stories with photos weren’t common until the late 1920s, when what we now call the “golden age of photojournalism” dawned. Along with it came the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Photography has been around since the mid-1800s, so why did it take so long for it to become an important part of news reporting?

To begin with, the printing process for images was slow and tedious. Cameras were big, heavy boxes with awkward tripods; they made photographers stick out like a sore thumb. And action photography was impossible because both camera and subject had to be very still to get a decent picture.

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Jessie Tarbox Beals

Jessie Tarbox Beals with camera-Schlesinger Library

Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870 – 1942) photographed the Massachusetts State Prison at the turn of the twentieth century, making her the first American woman to have her work published in a newspaper.

She was also the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer (The Buffalo Inquirer, 1902). She’s considered America’s first female photojournalist.

Photography was just a hobby for Jessie when she took it up in 1888. By 1904, she’d become successful at news and portrait photography in Buffalo, New York.

Setting her sights even higher, she closed her studio and moved to New York City. She wanted to conquer news photography in America’s biggest city, but because she was a woman, no newspaper would hire her. Once again, she opened her own portrait studio as a way to make a living.

Jessie wouldn’t give up. She decided to photograph newsworthy stories she found interesting and sold them to newspaper editors afterward. One of them was on the poor living conditions of immigrant families in tenements. It worked — a newspaper bought her photos and assigned a reporter to write a story around it. After that, she had no trouble getting assignments.

Hauling around fifty pounds of equipment dressed in hoop skirts and big hats didn’t slow Jessie down a bit. She became famous for climbing ladders and jumping into hot air balloons to get the best angles for her shots.

While always busy capturing news events, Jessie Tarbox Beals also continued to do portraits. Her subjects included presidents Taft and Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and other authors and artists of her time.

Learn more about Jessie Tarbox Beals on this site and at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

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Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke White

Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971) broke ground with several firsts as a photojournalist. She was the first American woman …

  • war photographer and war correspondent
  • to be allowed to document World War II combat zones
  • to fly a bombing mission
  • hired by Life magazine as a staff photojournalist

Margaret came by her interest from her father, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who was an avid hobby photographer. Always a restless spirit, she recalled, “I knew I had to travel.” Photojournalism became her passport to the world.

While still a student at Cornell University (the seventh college she attended), Margaret started selling photos. Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc. summoned her to New York City after she graduated to work for his new magazine, Fortune. Later she joined the staff of Life magazine.

Like her colleague Dorothea Lange, Margaret took some of the most memorable photographs from the Great Depression era. Later, she broke some of journalism’s toughest barriers, becoming the first American female war photographer during World War II.

In the course of her long career, Margaret captured many of the world’s major news events on film. In the 1982 film Gandhi, the actress Candice Bergen portrayed Margaret during the time of the India-Pakistan partition.

Respected in her own lifetime, Margaret Bourke-White continues to be celebrated as a true pioneer in the  field of photojournalism. Learn more about her at the International Center for Photography.

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Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange in the 1930s

Photo: Paul S. Taylor

Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) never let a permanent limp from childhood polio stop her from making great strides as one of America’s most important photojournalists.

After studying photography in college, Dorothea longed to explore the world. But she was robbed just as she was about to set sail from San Francisco, forcing her to stay put and earn money.

What started out as a short detour became a very long one. She married, set up a portrait studio, and had two children. When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, Dorothea was in her own thirties, starting to hit her stride as a photographer.

She took photographs that put a face on the suffering of the homeless in cities and migrants in rural areas. Her 1936 photograph, “Migrant Mother,” is one of the most famous images ever taken.

Dorothea photographed Japanese American internment camps in the World War II years. Her images were so heartbreaking that the Army seized them and censored them from public viewing for several decades. Dorothea continued to dedicate her career to bearing witness and inspiring compassion for fellow human beings.

Learn more about Dorothea Lange on this site and at NPR.org.

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Ruth Gruber

Ruth Gruber photojournalist

Ruth Gruber (1911 –2016) was a Brooklyn born-and-bred daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. A brilliant student, by age twenty she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in Germany.

Ruth’s decision to linger in Germany as the Nazis were coming into power was terribly risky, but risk wasn’t something she avoided.

Upon returning to the U.S., she wrote a series of articles about women’s lives under fascism for the New York Herald Tribune. A career in journalism was born. Ruth discovered a talent for photography that was a perfect partner to her writing.

“I had two tools to fight injustice — words and images, my typewriter and my camera. I just felt that I had to fight evil, and I’ve felt like that since I was twenty years old. I’ve never been an observer. I have to live a story to write it.”

Ruth helped bring nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to the U.S. during World War II. She also documented the voyage of the ship Exodus that carried more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1947.

The British navy intercepted the ship and forced it to Cyprus. Ruth flew to the island nation to record the horrific conditions forced on people who had already endured so much, now stuck in crowded refugee camps. 

Ruth Gruber considered herself a witness to history, especially when it came to the plight of displaced Jews. By the end of her 105-year life, she was recognized as much for her work as a human rights advocate as for her incredible career as a photojournalist.

Learn more about Ruth Gruber on this site and at Jewish Women’s Archive.


More trailblazing women photojournalists

  • Marion Carpenter
  • Helen Johns Kirtland
  • Ann Rosener
  • Marion Post Wolcott
  • Esther Bubley
  • Alice Rohe

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Dickey chapelle on the USS Boxer

See also: 6 Female Journalists of the World War II Era

One Response to “Worth a Thousand Words: 4 Trailblazing Women Photojournalists”

  1. Please check out the work of Marie Ann Han Yoo, the only known Korean American woman photographer of her time–she captured postwar Korea from 1956-57 http://www.marieannhanyoo.com and her work has appeared in the Korea Society, National Geographic, and has been featured in the Mayor’s Office Honolulu Hale in January 2023

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