Jessie Tarbox Beals, America’s First Female Photojournalist

Jessie Tarbox Beals walking a city street

Though Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870 – 1942) wasn’t a literary figure, we’ve been highlighting pioneering female journalists here on Literary Ladies Guide, and she was a true trailblazer. Though she rarely contributed the texts to the news stories she took, she was a storyteller with her camera. As America’s first woman news photographer, she broke many barriers and encouraged other women to follow suit.

Jessie was the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer on a U.S. newspaper and the first American woman to get a byline as a photojournalist. She herself found nothing extraordinary about the pursuit, claiming that photography was a profession that could be mastered by any woman who “has good health, perseverance, and a nose for news.”

 

Enjoying a lavish childhood, losing everything

As a young girl growing up in Ontario, Canada, in the 1870s, Jessie observed firsthand how fleeting success could be. Thanks to her father’s invention of a portable sewing machine, her family enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, complete with a mansion and beautiful gardens.

It all came crashing down when his patents expired, plunging his business into bankruptcy and driving him to drink. Jessie’s mother threw him out and found ways to support the family herself. Taking after her resourceful mother, Jessie earned a teaching certificate by age seventeen.

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Jessie Tarbox Beals with camera-Schlesinger Library

This is the kind of camera Jessie used for much of her career.
This photo is from around 1905
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A prize camera leads to a profession

After a decade of teaching in Massachusetts, Jessie won a camera as a prize for selling magazine subscriptions. At first a hobby, photography became a passion. Jessie worked on her first professional assignment in 1899 when The Boston Post sent her to photograph the Massachusetts state prison. That same year, got her first credit byline for her photographs in the Windham County Reformer.

At age thirty, in 1900, she gave up teaching to pursue photography as a profession. By then, she’d married Alfred Tennyson Beals, moved to Buffalo, New York, and set up a portrait studio. In a rare reversal of roles, her husband was her assistant, doing much of the darkroom work. Jessie taught Alfred the basics of photography. 

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Jessie Tarbox Beals photo of Teddy Roosevelt
One of Jessie Tarbox Beals’ most famous photos,
depicting President Theodore Roosevelt (front left)
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Setting her sights higher

Being a successful female portrait photographer in the early 1900s was quite a feat. And when she was hired as a full-time news photographer for Buffalo’s two newspapers in 1902, it was an unheard of profession for women. That’s when she cemented her legacy as America’s first female photojournalist.

But none of this was enough for restless Jessie. In 1905, she moved to New York City, determined to become a news photographer in America’s biggest city.  But no newspaper would hire a woman, so once again, she open a portrait studio as a way to make a living.

From the beginning of her career, Jessie was vocal about her desire for women to pursue the profession. In an interview in The Focus, (St. Louis, Missouri) in 1904, she said:  “Newspaper photography as a vocation for women is somewhat of an innovation, but is one that offers great inducements in the way of interest as well as profit. If one is the possessor of health and strength, a good news instinct … and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer.” 

Street child photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals

Street child photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, a series she became known for
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Forging her own path

It wasn’t for nothing that Jessie was called “aggressive” and a “daredevil,” though neither were meant as compliments. Not willing to give up, she took photos she found newsworthy, printed them, and sold them newspaper editors. Afterwards, reporters would be assigned to write up the stories to go with them. Freelancing in this unique way helped her gain a reputation.

In 1905 Jessie opened her own photo studio on Sixth Avenue in New York City. At the same time, she took whatever assignments came her way, from capturing the burgeoning Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village to her signature photos of the inhabitants of the city’s slums. She also did portraits of presidents (Coolidge, Hoover, and Taft) and literary figures including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mark Twain. 

In 1911, Jessie had a daughter, Nanette, who was frail from the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. She was the apple of her mother’s eye. Jessie and Alfred, who may not have been Nanette’s father, often lived apart and eventually divorced in 1917.

One of her best-known photo essays, featured in the The New York Times in 1913, documented the poor living conditions of immigrant families.

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Jessie Tarbox Beals
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Climbing — literally — to success 

Photojournalism was a demanding, risky profession — as it still remains. But nothing, not even hauling around a box camera weighing fifty pounds wearing full skirts and big hats got in the way of Jessie’s determination to get the best angles for her photos. She climbed ladders and bookcases, and even jumped into hot air balloons.

Her first major “climb” was perching at the top of a bookcase to get shots of a 1903 murder trial through a transom window. Photographers were barred from the courtroom, so Jessie’s photos became exclusive.

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jessie tarbox beals slum photo

She became known for documenting living conditions of the poor

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A full career with some missteps

Jessie took every assignment that came her way — news events, celebrity and political portraits, even homes and gardens. She loved to work and needed to make a living. In hindsight, she came to regret her versatility, which made her work harder to recognize and to become known for.

By the 1920s, she was no longer as much of a novelty as a woman photographer. Others, like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White were coming up fast behind her. Jessie tried to stay afloat by becoming a public speaker and  shifted her focus to giving public talks and specializing in photographing suburban gardens and the estates of the wealthy. 

In the late 1920s, she and Nanette moved to Hollywood to ply her trade, but returned to New York City in 1933 — the depths of the depression. Things went downhill from there. Jessie neglected to save money for her later years. Like her father, she lived too lavishly, and sadly, ended up destitute when she could no longer work.

 

The legacy of Jessie Tarbox Beals

As America’s first female news photographer, Jessie Tarbox Beals is considered one of the pioneers of the photo essay — a series of photos with captions to document newsworthy subjects. Jessie didn’t write, but she thought like a reporter, which was why she was able to sell photos before a single word of a news story had been written. Her example encouraged other women to pursue professional photography.

Though Jessie made mistakes, but they don’t diminish her accomplishments. To become America’s first female photojournalist, she refused to let gender be a barrier. She took pride in crafting excellent photographs and used her moxie to get them into major publications. Most admirably of all, she created her own opportunities, rather than waiting for men to give her permission.

The archives of Jessie Tarbox Beals are now housed at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. The papers and photographs were gift by her daughter Nanette in 1982, long after Jessie’s death in 1942 at the age of seventy-one.

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jessie Tarbox Beals outside the White House

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“A nose for news” — quotes by Jessie Tarbox Beals

A 1910  interview  with Jessie in the St. Louis Star and Times began: 

“There is a message of hope for every ambitious woman in the story of Mrs. Jessie Tarbox Beals, the photographer who began as an amateur, with a small pocket camera. She continued the study of photography until her work was sought eagerly by publishers of nearly all high-class periodicals in the United States.  Mrs. Beals says photography is a profession that can be mastered by any woman who has good health, perseverance, and ‘the nose for news.'”

Here are some quotes from that interview, giving a glimpse of her ambition and forthright personality:

“I went to New York and opened a studio, but soon gave it up because I did not like the inside work. I still have workrooms there where I keep three men busy finishing my work, but I do not keep a studio for portraits. I prefer the great world outside.”

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“There are possibilities in this work for women. To follow it, however, a woman should have a good supply of ‘nerve,’ good health, and the ability to pick out interesting subjects and handle them in an interesting manner. Individuality and ideas are what count.”

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While I was in Buffalo, I made a great hit with a series of pictures of actors and actresses. I waited at the stage doors for them and got pictures with real life and action in them. I followed this by a series of photographs of city officials.”

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“The work is not only highly profitable, but is very pleasant. One can be independent and free to work when and where she pleases.”

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“Too many photographers try too hard. They try to lift photography into the realm of Art, because they have an inferiority complex about their craft. You and I would see more interesting photography if they would stop worrying, and instead, apply horse-sense to the problem of recording the look and feel of their own era.”

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“No assignment was too difficult for me to attempt, and I generally got what I was sent for. OnceI climbed to the top of a freight car to photograph a wreck. I was not in the least unnerved by my trips in the air. That is one reason why a woman who attempts this work should have good health.”

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More about Jessie Tarbox Beals

2 Responses to “Jessie Tarbox Beals, America’s First Female Photojournalist”

  1. i love literary ladies guide! thanks so much for this. i’m an l.a. artist with an art show i’m putting together about trailblazing women and this site is helpful for me when choosing whom to spotlight. if you’d like to see my dorothy parker artwork, please visit my site!

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