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Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942)

Biographical Essay | Resources | Image Sampler

Biographical Essay

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 . . . a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer.

Jessie Tarbox Beals
The Focus, St. Louis, Missouri, 1904
Jessie Tarbox Beals self portrait (detail)
Jessie Tarbox Beals self portrait
(detail of Jessie T. Beals with John Burroughs),


Jessie Tarbox Beals is known as America's first female news photographer because The Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier hired her as a staff photographer in 1902. Although rarely hired again as a staff photographer, her freelance news photographs and her tenacity and self-promotion set her apart in a competitive field through the 1920s. At a time when most women's roles were confined to the home and most women who ventured into photography maintained homelike portrait studios, Jessie called attention to her willingness to work outdoors and in situations generally thought too rough for a woman. She excelled in photographing such news worthy events as the 1904 world's fair as well as documentary photography of houses, gardens, Bohemian Greenwich Village, slums, and school children.1

The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division has representative examples of Beals' work in several collections. (See the Image Sampler.) Many of the magazines and newspapers where her images were originally published are available for study through the general collection and newspaper research centers. The bulk of Jessie's surviving papers and photographs are at Harvard University, the New-York Historical Society, and the American Museum of Natural History. (See the Resources section for additional information.)

Early Life

Jessie Tarbox was born Dec. 23, 1870, to machinist John Nathaniel Tarbox and his wife Marie Antoinette Bassett in Hamilton, Ontario. John's invention of a portable sewing machine enabled the family to live in a beautifully landscaped mansion until 1877 when the sewing machine patents expired. John then drank to excess, his family abandoned him, and his strong-willed wife supported the family on meager resources.

Jessie became a certified teacher at 17 and moved to Williamsburg, Mass., to live with her brother. She taught there and in Greenfield, Mass. She sketched gardens in her spare time but quickly realized that her artistic talents were disappointing.

In 1888, Jessie's life changed when she won a camera for selling a magazine subscription. "I began when I was a teacher in Massachusetts, with a small camera that cost me $1.75 for the whole outfit. In a week I had discarded it for a larger one and in five weeks that one had earned me $10."2

During the summers, Jessie offered students from nearby Smith College four portraits for a dollar, a source of a steady income. At a Chautauqua Assembly (an educational summer camp for adults) she made a conscious decision to concentrate on news photography. In 1893 she attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where the experience of making photographs and meeting other women photographers, including Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier, heightened her fascination with that occupation.

Jessie married Amherst graduate Alfred Tennyson Beals in 1897; she taught part time and did extra photography. In 1899 her photographs of the local prison were published in a newspaper. Although these images were uncredited, hundreds of photographs published in the future would bear her credit line.

Early Professional Life

Jessie Tarbox Beals ended her 12-year teaching career in 1900. That September, she received her first credit line from Vermont's Windham County Reformer, for photos made for a fair. These gave her the distinction of being one of the first published woman photojournalists. For more than a year, the Beals couple operated a door-to-door portrait and general photography service. When they ran out of money in 1901, they settled in Buffalo, N.Y., where they had a premature child who died.

In late November 1902, Jessie broke into full-time professional news photography. The editor of Buffalo's two local papers, The Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier, hired her and allowed her to freelance for out-of-town correspondents, as well. She got her first "exclusive" in 1903 and proved her ability to hustle when she perched atop a bookcase to make photos through a transom of a murder trial that had been proclaimed off-limits to news photographers. She used a 50 pound 8 x 10 format camera for her assignments. She took pride in her physical strength and agility and delighted in self-promotion.

Jessie made her first nationally recognized photographs when Sir Thomas Lipton, the inventor of the tea bag, stopped in Buffalo. Her portrait of Lipton was published in the national press.

The St. Louis Worlds Fair

In 1904, the Buffalo newspapers sent Jessie to the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Mo., and Alfred went along to print her photographs. Other professional women photographers working at the fair included Frances Benjamin Johnston and Emme and Mamie Gerhard. As a latecomer, Jessie was denied an exhibition press pass, but, relying on her ability to hustle, she persuaded the exhibition office to grant her a permit to photograph at the fairgrounds before the exposition opened. Pass in hand, she ignored the limitations and photographed at every opportunity.3 She ultimately became the official photographer at the Fair for the New York Herald, Tribune, and Leslie's Weekly, three Buffalo newspapers, and all the local St. Louis papers, as well as the Fair's own publicity department. She climbed ladders and floated in hot air balloons to get her shots.

Jessie thought like a news photographer. Reversing the traditional newspaper approach, she often generated photographs for which a writer would be assigned later. She developed several story ideas at the Fair, such as similarities in the role of motherhood in different cultures, for which newspapers then wrote stories. She also anticipated the use of series of photos or picture stories with which U.S. magazines and newspapers of the 1930s would replace single images.4

Jessie created additional opportunities for herself by making pictures of dignitaries attending the Fair. She captured a photo of William Howard Taft outside the Philippine Building at the Fair. She interrupted President Theodore Roosevelt on his tour of the Fair to make his photograph and followed him throughout the day, making more than 30 photographs. Her aggressiveness paid off when she gained credentials as a member of his Presidential party and accompanied him to a reunion of the Rough Riders in San Antonio in March 1905.

The New York Years

Settling in New York City, Jessie was unable to secure work as a news staff photographer so she and her husband opened a studio. In the competitive New York portrait market, men still dominated professional photography but the American Art News commissioned two women--Jessie Tarbox Beals and Zaida Ben-Yúsuf--to make 17 portraits of prominent artists, which it published in 1905.5 This assignment won approval from critics who preferred her "straight" approach to that of better-known photographers Gertrude Käsebier and Alvin Langdon Coburn.6 The American Art series led to other jobs in major magazines about painters, sculptors, writers and actors.

Jessie maintained an art photography element in her repertoire by displaying images in "Exhibition of Photographs - The Work of Women Photographers" held at the Camera Club of Hartford, in Connecticut, in 1906; in the "Thirteenth Annual International Exhibition of Photography," organized by the Toronto Camera Club, Toronto, Canada, in 1921; and at the "Third National Salon of Pictorial Photography," organized by the prominent Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1922.

Early on, Jessie envisioned an international career for herself: "I want to free lance (sic) it around the world," she says. "England, Australia, New Zealand--they're all easy because the language is the same. I'm going to do them next. But I want to take in Europe and Japan, and China and India, too. This staying in one place is no good. I've got to load up my old camera and take another hike before long."7 Although she wound up concentrating on the United States, her interest in being on the road resulted in widely distributed publications including Outing, The Craftsman, American Homes and Gardens, Bit and Spur, Town and Country, Harper's Bazaar, The Christian Science Monitor, McClure's Magazine and The New York Times. The variety of publications also testifies to the difficulty women had establishing themselves and indicates Jessie's willingness to do whatever was necessary to succeed.

Jessie's marriage became a disappointment. She teamed up with a freelance writer, Harriet Rice, and taught herself to use flash powder to make photos at night. Through Rice, Jessie met the man who fathered her daughter, Nanette, who was born in 1911. Jessie and her husband doted on the child and raised her together even though their marriage grew increasingly strained, particularly when Nanette required hospitalizations for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. In 1917, Jessie left her husband and opened a tearoom and art gallery in Greenwich Village.

Later Years

Jessie spent three years in Greenwich Village making photographs that captured its Bohemian nature, and in 1920, with business booming after World War I, she moved to a large loft on Fourth Avenue.8 Like other women photographers of the time, she had to work freelance rather than on staff for a publication. Much of her work was for reform-oriented causes such as Greenwich [settlement] House documenting educational and arts programs for children. Some of her photographs were used in posters and books for Progressive education programs. Another example of her work is an album at the Library of Congress, which she made in 1925 when she photographed the McDowell Colony at Peterborough, New Hampshire, to help Marian McDowell advertise and raise funds for the arts program there.

Jessie relied heavily on friends for a sense of belonging. Her daughter lived principally with Alfred, attended boarding schools or was boarded out with friends. Jessie and Alfred never reconciled and were divorced in 1924. Jessie never remarried.

By 1928, when Jessie was 58, she could no longer maintain her frenzied pace. She switched to lighter cameras and flexible film. With her daughter, she went to California where wives of motion picture executives were eager to have their estates photographed by a celebrated New York photographer. This project soon ended with the stock market crash of 1929.

Final Years

Jessie and her daughter returned to New York in the 1930s, where she had started 25 years earlier. She rented space in a darkroom and lived in a basement apartment, around the corner from her first New York studio. As a woman in her sixties, Jessie continued to photograph gardens and estates and win prizes, but she never regained her earlier level of success.9 She kept in touch with other photographers as shown in this special poem for her old colleague Frances Benjamin Johnston.

poem, from Beals to Johnston
Poem "To My Friend"
from Jessie Tarbox Beals
to Frances Benjamin Johnston
Christmas 1934
Frances Benjamin Johnston Papers
Manuscript Division

In late 1941, Jessie became bedridden. A lifetime of hustling for work had taken its toll and lavish living had left her destitute. She was admitted to the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital where she died on May 30, 1942 at 71. Alfred Beals, who lived nearby, did not attend her funeral.

Jessie's versatility helped make her one of the first female photojournalists, but by the end of her life she worried that it was exactly that willingness to work at any assignment she could get that contributed to her lack of cachet. She regretted her failure to specialize, become affiliated with a major institution, or achieve lasting financial success. Many of Jessie's negatives were lost or destroyed during her lifetime because she had nowhere to store them. Her work drifted into obscurity until photographer Alexander Alland gathered what he could and published a biography titled, Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer, in 1978.

She deserves recognition for her pioneering role in news photography, the excellent quality of her photographs, her struggle to overcome gender-based career obstacles, and her life-long devotion to her career. Her courageous example encouraged other women to pursue photography.

1 Alexander Alland, Sr. Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer. New York: Camera/Graphic Press, 1978.
2 "The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women---Some of Those Who Have Made Good." New York Times, April 20, 1913. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
3 The bulk of these photos are retained at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
4 "The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women--Some of Those Who Have Made Good." New York Times, April 20, 1913. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
5 William F. Stapp, Portrait of the Art World: A Center of ARTnews Photographs. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery in association with Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 30-3.
6 "Photographs All Made by Women," Hartford Courant, April 7, 1906. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
7 "Miss Jessie Tarbox Beals' Adventures as a Traveling Photographer." Washington Post, Jan. 21, 1906, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
8 The Museum of the City of New York holds many images related to Greenwich Village.
9 The Frances Loeb Library Graduate School of Design at Harvard University holds a collection of Beals' house and garden photographs.

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2011. Last revised: January 2011.
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  April 19, 2011
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