Before Annie Leibovitz and Margaret Bourke-White, there was Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870–1942).
A pioneer of photojournalism in the late 1880s and early 1900s, Beals is recognized as the first woman photographer hired on a newspaper staff. In 1902, after she had proven herself as an accomplished freelance photographer (and taught her husband the trade), Beals joined the staff of The Buffalo Inquirer. But she didn’t stay long.
She left her post at the paper after 18 months to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair with her husband Alfred. Jessie had to push officials at the fair to give her a photography permit, and once she did she became an accredited photographer for the New York Herald and other papers. During her six months at the fair, she became something of a celebrity herself, taking pictures of luminaries such as President Theodore Roosevelt and his oldest son, Theodore Jr.
Following her success in St. Louis, Jessie was ready to take on New York. In 1905, she and her husband moved to Manhattan and eventually set up their own studio; Jessie took pictures, while Alfred managed the business. Hustling for clients, Jessie went so far as to write to prominent people who were listed in the Social Register and offer to take their portraits without charge. Her labor paid off. The business survived, and in 1906, she and other women photographers were featured in a group show sponsored by the Camera Club of Hartford, Conn. In the show’s announcement, Beals was singled out for special recognition.
But all was not well on the home front. While Jessie enjoyed the bohemian life in Greenwich Village—where she was friendly with Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, and other artists—her husband was more reclusive. They began to lead separate lives, and by the time Jessie gave birth to her daughter Nanette, in 1911, there was some dispute whether Alfred was the child’s father, though he doted on her throughout his life.
In an era when most women chose children or careers, Beals managed both, however imperfectly. Nanette was often cared for by friends or shipped off to boarding school, and mother and daughter didn’t live together until the daughter was 17.
Ultimately, though, the daughter was loyal to her mother, publicizing her work and arranging for posthumous exhibitions and publications. Beginning in 1982, Nanette Beals Brainerd gave all of her mother’s papers and pictures to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where they’re available today to scholars and others interested in women’s history.
Jenny Gotwals, lead manuscript cataloger at the Schlesinger, who processed Beals’s papers and photographs, points out that—unlike most photographers—Beals didn’t specialize in one area but took news photos, interior portraits, street scenes, and garden and house pictures. In Gotwals’ view, the photographer was indomitable. “She just soldiered on and did what she needed to do. That’s how she was able to accomplish so much.”