Jessie Tarbox Beals was a woman of many firsts. A pioneer of photography, she was the first published female photojournalist in the United States, the first woman press photographer, and the first female night photographer. The Jessie Tarbox Beals photograph collection, ca. 1905-1940, PR-4, at the New-York Historical Society is available through our Shelby White and Leon Levy Digital Library.
Beals was born in 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Her father, John Nathaniel Tarbox, was a sewing machine manufacturer, and inventor of the portable sewing machine. Jessie Tarbox Beals moved to Massachusetts when she was 17 to become a teacher, a job she held for roughly 12 years. She got her start in photography by chance, when she won a small camera in a contest. She was immediately intrigued and began taking portraits of local students at a low price. Once she caught the photography bug, Beals never looked back. Her first credited work is in the Vermont newspaper the Windham County Reformer in 1900. In 1902, she was hired as a photographer for two newspapers in Buffalo, New York; The Buffalo Inquirer and The Buffalo Courier.
Beals was no doubt a tough woman, and quite the hustler. She always went the extra mile for her photographs. She did not have one particular focus, and her photos contain a wide number of subjects; such as major events (e.g., the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition), outdoor photography (e.g., houses and gardens), architecture, Greenwich Village, children, and urban poverty. According to the Library of Congress’s own post about her, she carried around a 50-pound (8×10 format) camera for her assignments–definitely not equipment for the faint of heart!
Beals moved to New York in 1905 and made a name for herself in the New York scene by first opening a portrait studio, and then by taking portraits of prominent artists (a job commissioned by American Art News). She later moved to Greenwich Village, opening a tea room and art gallery in 1917. Much of her work during this time was freelance, and she spent her days capturing the artistic nature of Greenwich Village. She focused on educational and arts programs aimed at progressive reform initiatives. She also contributed to the New York Times by submitting scenic photographs of architecture, street scenes, and gardens.
Beals fit right in with the bohemians of Greenwich Village and enjoyed the artistic, free spirit of the neighborhood. She got on well with the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Since Beals didn’t specialize in one area, choosing instead to take a wide variety of photos, her collection is particularly rich for setting the scene of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century. Her photos are even used in other blog posts about other 20th century figures! For example, our blog post on Alice Foote MacDougall features photographs taken by Beals of the coffee shop mogul. She has captured images of four presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft), as well as other famous/prominent individuals such as Mark Twain, Ida M. Tarbell, General Pershing, and Fannie Hurst to name a few. No matter your interest, whether it is portraits, gardens, street scenes, fashion, or documentary photography, Beals has no doubt covered it.
It is thanks to fellow photographer Alexander Alland that Beals’ work did not fall into complete obscurity. Beals passed away in 1942, at the age of 71, in the charity ward at Bellevue Hospital. Much of her work was initially thought to be lost or destroyed. However, Alland bought many of Beals’ negative and prints from her heirs, and in 1978 published a biography entitled, Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer. See through the eyes of Jessie Tarbox Beals, and glimpse history by heading over to our Digital Library now!
This post is by Gina Modero, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.