Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
March is Women’s History Month, a time when we celebrate women’s contributions to our history, culture, and society. This month provides the perfect opportunity to highlight some of these female pioneers who haven’t always received the recognition they deserve for their achievements. For example, the Museum of the City of New York has spent the past few months celebrating the work of a photojournalism innovator whose work spurred America to create a better system for those affected by poverty through our exhibition Jacob A Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half. Most people had heard of Riis before visiting our exhibition, yet how many can name a contemporary of Riis’s who is regarded as the first female photojournalist in the United States?
That woman was Jessie Tarbox Beals. Born in Canada in 1870, her first job was as a schoolteacher in Massachusetts. The trajectory of her life changed in 1888 when she won a small camera for selling magazine subscriptions. Soon, she was offering her services as a portrait photographer to students at the local colleges, and after visiting the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago where she met other female photographers, she realized her true calling: news photography.
Beals embarked on her new career with the beginning of the new century, retiring from teaching to pursue photography full-time along with her husband, Alfred. 1900 also marks the first time her images ran in a newspaper with her credit line, earning her the distinction as the first published female photojournalist. Two years later, Beals was hired by the Buffalo Inquirer and Courier, where the portrait she captured of Sir Thomas Lipton, inventor of the teabag, became one of her first nationally published and recognizable photographs.
She traveled to St. Louis to cover the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904, but arrived late and officials denied her an exhibition press pass. Nevertheless, she persisted, and eventually became the first woman awarded press credentials to photograph the Exposition for national publications. Her pictures were included in the New York Herald, Tribune, Leslie’s Weekly, three Buffalo newspapers, and all of the local St. Louis papers. Who could blame them? Beals was so dedicated that she climbed ladders and took hot air balloons in pursuit of the perfect shot. While at the fair, Beals even managed to snap pictures of then-president Teddy Roosevelt and future president William Howard Taft. Meanwhile, husband Alfred served as her darkroom technician.
After the Exposition, Jessie and Alfred Beals moved to Manhattan and opened a photography studio. She took the pictures and he managed the business. While living in New York, Jessie enjoyed the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, where she spent time with the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill, among others. These acquaintances put a strain on her marriage, however, and when her daughter Nanette was born in 1911, some people speculated as to whether the child was actually Alfred’s.
In 1917, the Bealses separated, and Jessie opened an art gallery and tearoom in Greenwich Village. Because of Nanette’s poor health as a child, she was frequently in the hospital or at boarding schools in the countryside. Jessie split her time between caring for her daughter and pursuing her photography career. She remained in Greenwich Village for three years, but the frenetic pace overwhelmed her, and so she and Nanette moved to California.
Out West, film executives clamored to have a celebrated New York photographer document their estates and gardens. Unfortunately, the crash of 1929 put a damper on her business prospects, and Beals and her daughter returned to New York City. She rented a darkroom space and continued to photograph gardens and estates – winning a few photography contests – though nothing compared to her previous success.
In 1941, a lifetime of hard work and lavish living had taken its toll. Beals was bedridden and essentially destitute, and was admitted to the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital, where she died in 1942. Following her death in 1942, the photographer Alexander Alland (1902-1989) obtained a number of her photographs and negatives. Though much of Beals’s reputation as a photographer had faded from view in the years following her death, Alland revived her legacy with the publication of a 1978 biography titled, Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer.
The Museum of the City of New York holds an extensive collection of Beals’s work, donated by Alland’s son, Alexander Alland, Jr., in the early 1990s, which is viewable online via the Collections Portal.