Beals, Jessie Tarbox (1870–1942)

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Beals, Jessie Tarbox (1870–1942)

Canadian-born photographer and America's first female press photographer, known also for her portraits, architectural documentation, landscapes, and gardens. Born Jessie Richmond Tarbox, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on December 23, 1870; died in New York, New York, on May 31, 1942; daughter and youngest of four children of John Nathaniel (a machinist and inventor) and Marie Antoinette (Bassett) Tarbox; attended Collegiate Institute of Ontario; married Alfred T. Beals, in 1897 (divorced); children: one daughter, Nanette (b. 1911).

A primitive camera catapulted Jessie Tarbox Beals from the life of a New England schoolmarm to a pioneering career as the first woman news photographer. For three decades after her groundbreaking photographs appeared in the Buffalo Inquirer and the Courier in 1903, she won national acclaim, receiving more exposure than any other female photographer of her era.

Born in 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Jessie had an idyllic childhood which came to an abrupt end when her father John lost his fortune and started drinking. In the end, he finally left home. Her mother Marie supported the four children by gradually selling the family treasures. Forced to earn her own living, Beals was 16 when she took a teaching position in a remote country school near Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where she had settled with her mother.

Obtaining a small, tin-box camera for selling magazine subscriptions, Beals began taking portraits of her students, as well the schoolhouse and its surroundings. She read voraciously about photography to improve the quality of her pictures and saved up two-weeks' salary ($12) to buy a folding Kodak camera with roll film. During a summer vacation, she converted a closet into a dark room, established Williamsburg's first photography studio on her front porch, and made more money than she had during the entire school year. The following summer, she set up her camera near a picnic spot favored by students from Smith College. Charging a dollar for four prints, she had no problem getting the young coeds to pose.

In 1893, when her brother moved his business to nearby Greenfield, she accompanied him and met Alfred T. Beals, a machinist and graduate of Amherst College, whom she married. In 1900, bored by teaching, which she called "genteel, sheltered, monotonous and moneyless work having neither heights nor depths," Beals taught her husband the basics of photography, then persuaded him to take to the road with her. As itinerant photographers, they set out with a few personal necessities, two bicycles, and a tent which served as a dark room. Their first train stop was the fairground at Brattleboro, Vermont, where they secured lodging at a local boarding house. Beals then went about finding editors to purchase her photographs of the fair. Two newspapers were interested: the Windham County Reformer and the Phoenix. The next day, she became the first woman in America to have news photos published and credited in the press. For the rest of the fall, Beals biked around town, recruiting customers and taking pictures, while Alfred developed glass-plate negatives and made prints; this division of labor would define their roles for the remainder of their partnership.

With the close of the fair, they spent nearly a year taking pictures in Florida until funds ran out, then settled in upstate New York. There, a pregnant Jessie decided to slow down, and Alfred took a job. On March 6, 1902, Beals gave birth to a daughter, but the infant died 12 hours later. When she was well enough to work again, Beals landed a job as a staff newspaper photographer in Buffalo, which began the physically grueling, sometimes dangerous, tasks that would establish her credentials. She covered daily life in the city and special assignments, including a devastating fire in the City of Rochester. Her first scoop was the sensational inquest into the murder of Edwin L. Burdick. Because spectators were not allowed in the courtroom, Beals climbed a bookcase in an adjoining room and shot photos through the door's transom. "Hide the camera, boys, and help me down," she said to a congregation of reporters below, and the pictures were snapped up for the front page of the New York American and Journal. Beals brought an artistic quality to her work, unusual in newspaper pictures of the day, and won high marks over the 18 months that she was in Buffalo.

Next she and Alfred set their sights on the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, an opportunity she regarded as a steppingstone toward establishing a studio on New York's Fifth Avenue. Arriving in St. Louis without an official press card, she managed to wheedle a pre-Exposition permit, which prohibited sale of any photographs taken before the fair's opening. Ignoring the rules, she sold one of her first pictures—of the Patagonian Giants of South America—to the local newspapers and for national syndication. Overnight, Jessie Beals became a fully accredited press photographer when a St. Louis newspaper claimed she carried "the first permit to be issued to a woman authorizing the taking of photographs on the World's Fair Grounds." Lugging 30 pounds of equipment, Beals photographed exhibits and numerous celebrity visitors, including President Theodore Roosevelt. She often put herself at risk for the perfect shot. When officials refused to let her ascend in a hot-air balloon during the fair's International Balloon Race, Beals managed to sidestep the ban. The Philadelphia Public Ledger of January 26, 1921, reported: "Just as one of the balloons was being set free, the huge crowd was thunderstruck to see a woman, a camera slung over her shoulder, grip the top of a basket and pull herself aboard. The balloon was off, and with it, the intrepid woman photographer." From her rising perch, Beals took a prizewinning bird's-eye view of the fair.

Though some of Beals' success was due to Alfred's speed in the dark room, he began to resent life on the move. In 1905, they compromised by settling in New York's Greenwich Village arts community. Beals' ability to hustle got business off the ground. There she took on any assignments, from sessions with famous New York personalities to portraits of pet cats for wealthy society matrons. She framed child portraits with verse that she composed; she advertised Tuesday as half-price day for children's portraits. During April 1906, Beals joined 32 women photographers in an exhibition sponsored by the Camera Club of Hartford, Connecticut, one of the few times she participated in a group show. She shot a number of documentation projects around New York, including a haunting series on children of the slums. She also traveled a great deal, taking assignments from Maine to Minnesota. When home, she enjoyed café society, while Alfred fretted about money and was uneasy with her friends and her bohemian ways.

The marriage became unbearable. By 1907, it was little more than a business arrangement, and Beals, nearing 40, longed for a child. In 1910, she had an affair and became pregnant. Nanette Tarbox Beals was born on June 8, 1911. Alfred accepted the child, and the couple continued the pretense of a normal domestic life. But when Nanette was six, she came down with infantile rheumatoid arthritis and was cared for in the charity ward of St. Luke's Hospital for several months. The days of stress finally put an end to the marriage. Although Beals had desperately wanted a child, her hours with her daughter were limited by her need to make a living and her tendency to spend. Nanette passed most of her time at boarding school or with friends.

Beals opened a small shop in Greenwich Village where she sold her photographs as well as paintings and prints made by friends. She shared an apartment in a $13-a-month tenement and joined the Liberal Club, whose qualifications for membership included "intellectual interests and radical ideas, while a bohemian temperament was a desirable secondary qualification."

By 1920, Beals had established herself in a huge new studio, formerly the workshop of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Having blazed a trail for women photographers, she was now faced with competition in the field. But she persevered, still taking a wide variety of assignments and hiring out as a speaker among women's groups. With topics like "Celebrities I Have Photographed," and "What One Sees Through the Eye of the Camera," she attracted large audiences. She also gained a reputation as a poet and joined the League of American Pen Women. In 1928, a friend published a book of Beals' poems, Songs of a Wanderer.

As Beals grew older and less willing to chase fire engines, she began photographing gardens of the wealthy for major gardening magazines. In 1928, with 17-year-old Nanette in tow, she moved to California in hopes of finding work. Nanette describes the strange experience of living with her mother for the first time: "My mother was forty-one years older than I and she knew nothing about being a mother. I, on the other hand, really didn't know how to give and take of home life."

Business was good until the Wall Street crash ended Beals' lavish California lifestyle. She moved back East, first to Chicago, where an anticipated lucrative assignment didn't pan out, and then to New York. The last six years of her life were spent in a basement apartment on West 11th Street, where she lived and worked, shooting pictures into her late 60s. In 1936, she won four Grand Awards in the yard-and-garden photographic competition run by the New York Herald Tribune.

In the end, ill health claimed all of Beals' money. She died of hardening of the arteries, at age 71, in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital and was buried in the narrow strip between the graves of her parents in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. The eclectic collection of Jessie Beals' stunning photographs—her life's work—all but disappeared from public view following her death.


Alland, Alexander, Sr. Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer. NY: Camera-Graphic Press, 1978.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts