Jessie Richmond Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Marie Antoinette Bassett and John Tarbox, an inventor and sewing machine manufacturer. At the age of 17, Beals received a teaching certificate and set out to begin her new career. Her first job was teaching seven pupils in a one-room schoolhouse for $7 a week, far from home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where her older brother lived. Beals won her first camera in 1888 after becoming the first reader to sell a year's subscription to Youth Companion magazine. Her enterprising spirit continued to serve her well with subsequent cameras.
The free camera used a 2.5 x 4 inch plate and did not have a manual focus, much like a glorified camera obscura. Beals used it to take photos of her pupils and friends. She soon invested $12 and bought a Kodak camera, with which she established a photo studio on the front lawn of her home. Local residents came to have their portraits taken, or to ask for pictures of their houses and other possessions. Beals was aided in her commercial endeavors by groups of Smith College students, who wanted pictures to be made of their parties and picnics. By the end of two summers she was making more money taking photographs than teaching school.
In 1893 Beals moved with her brother to Greenfield, a larger town where she participated in dances, outings, and lectures, experimented with new camera techniques, and met her future husband, Alfred Tennyson Beals, a machinist. They were married in 1897. Beals continued to teach school and cared for her elderly and ailing mother, who had come from Canada to live with her children. In 1899 one of Beals's photos was used (although unattributed) as an accompaniment to a news story in the Boston Post. Seeing the opportunity to make a living by selling photographs, Jessie and Alfred Beals became itinerant photographers, traveling to cities where large fairs or other gatherings were taking place. Jessie took the photos and managed publicity while Alfred oversaw the developing and printing. In September 1900, Jessie Tarbox Beals published photographs in Vermont's Windham County Reformer and the Phoenix. Her credit line in the Windham paper establishes her as the first published woman photojournalist.
Despite its excitement value, an itinerant lifestyle could not provide much stability. In 1901, Alfred took a job in Buffalo, New York, hoping to settle down. Jessie continued to take photos, and sold them to whoever would buy them. Her persistence paid off; in the spring of 1902, Jessie was hired as a staff photographer for the Buffalo Inquirer and Courier. She started using an 8 x 10 format camera, which was well-suited to the papers' printing needs, but larger and heavier (approx. 50 pounds) for Beals to carry on assignment. Nevertheless, Beals enjoyed her job and the running around (hustling, as she later put it) it required. She was a tireless employee, capturing many important local and larger news stories for the two papers, including the visit of British yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton to nearby Niagara Falls. Often she managed to get an exclusive on events through persistence and pluck; her photos of the sensational Burdick murder trial were printed in the New York City papers. While trying to get the best shot, Beals did not ignore more artistic photographic issues, such as lighting, composition, and the right moment to snap action. This artistic sensibility is evident throughout her career.
In 1904, the Buffalo Inquirer and Courier sent Beals to St. Louis to photograph the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Alfred went along, and became the darkroom technician once again, sharing a darkroom with New York photographer Mattie Hewitt. The speed with which he developed and printed photos became integral to Beals' success as a photographer at the Exposition. After an initially difficult time getting accredited, Beals persisted and was the first woman awarded credentials to photograph the Exposition for national publications such as Leslie's Weekly, New York Herald and New York Tribune, in addition to the Buffalo papers and the local St. Louis papers. She photographed everything from the fair's officials to the groups of primitive people on display (such as Patagonians), the different exhibition buildings, and military parades. She created a detailed visual record of the ground-breaking international airshow in the fall of 1904, barely a year after the Wright Brothers' first flight. She would do anything, from standing on a 20-foot ladder to going up in a hot-air balloon, in order to achieve an interesting perspective. Beals was awarded a gold medal by the Exposition for her aerial photography. The Exposition's official publicity department also bought and used many of her photos. She explained her success in an article for a St. Louis magazine, "[I]f one is the possessor of health and strength, a good news instinct that will tell what picture the editor will want, a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer." (quoted in Alland, 53.)
Her "ability to hustle" in St. Louis propelled Jessie Tarbox Beals forward in her career. She was granted permission to accompany President Theodore Roosevelt on the Rough Rider's Reunion in Texas in March 1905. In May of that year Beals decided to settle in New York City. It was her intention to try her hand at portrait photography, but the prevailing style in town was too formal for her taste. Instead, she continued to work for publications, often taking portraits of artists and writers. Beals' photos were published in and eventually commissioned by American Art News, The Craftsman, The American Magazine, and The Designer. She and Alfred rented a studio at 159 Sixth Avenue, the first of many they would share. Beals befriended writer Harriet Livermore Rice, and took the celebrity portraits Rice sold to the papers. Beals, always interested in technical innovation, began to use flash photography to get indoor shots; the technique's rareness added novelty to her portraits.
Photography was sometimes lucrative but did not guarantee a steady income. During her career, Beals became adept at finding new ways to market her work, or finding new subjects to take on. Shortly after her arrival in New York, Beals began to travel to areas outside of the city to take photos of military trainees, rifle meets, and other events. Her "ability to hustle" and keen news instinct, honed earlier in Buffalo, paid off, as did the fact that she was a woman. Her close calls with danger at a 1906 auto race made news and helped sell her resulting pictures. Eventually the Beals family team had to hire darkroom assistants in order to keep up with all the print orders. Beals did not abandon her portraiture or more artistic photographs for pure news stories; she made a good bit of money by taking portraits of children in her studio, and by selling artistic and amusingly titled photos of cats.
In 1906 an assortment of Beals' work was featured in a show of "Women Photographers" at the Camera Club of Hartford. Her exhibited portraits (including those of Albert Herter and Mark Twain) were especially praised by the reviewers. In the next several years she continued to travel, both for work and to visit friends, and to gain recognition; she went to Boston and other parts of New England, as well as to Chicago, St. Louis, and Buffalo. During this time her marriage with Alfred became strained, made more difficult by her desire for a child and her heightened interest in Greenwich Village life (Alfred did not like bohemians as much as Jessie did). In 1911, at the age of 40, Beals gave birth to a daughter, Nanette Tarbox Beals, fathered by another man. Beals doted on her daughter, and photographed her often. At the same time, Beals devoted more of her time to taking photos of street children in downtown Manhattan. Many of these pictures were taken for the Community Service Society of New York, which used the photos in its campaigns to improve the impoverished and unhealthy conditions of the children's lives. Nanette Beals was often sick herself, and it was difficult for Beals to provide for her daughter's health and continue to work hard at her own career. For extra income, she contributed photos (though uncredited) to books such as Kate Sanborn's Hunting Cigar Store Indians in a Taxi Cab (1911).
Beals continued to work and live with her husband. In 1912, they moved to a larger studio and hired assistants in order to give each other more space to work separately. Alfred began taking photos himself once he was not needed to develop all of Beals' photos. The arrangement did not last long however. In March 1917, Beals left her husband, and moved in with a friend in Greenwich Village. She rented a small studio at 6 Â½ Sheridan Square, which she named the Village Art Gallery, and where she displayed her photos, others' artwork, and served tea to friends and customers.
Beals lived and worked in Greenwich Village at the height of its turn-of-the-century bohemian incarnation. Many of the people she encountered, befriended, and photographed were leading literary and artistic figures of the time, or went on to become famous. She documented the haunts and studios of Greenwich Village, as well as local bohemian celebrities, such as bohemian restaurateur Grace Godwin, Tiny Tim, who sold candies he wrapped in pieces of paper, and Romany Marie, a self-made "Gypsy" from the Lower East Side. Beals turned many of her Village scenes into postcards, on which she wrote and printed rhymes about the places or people illustrated. A 1918 guidebook, The Little Book of Greenwich Village, described Beals as "The official photographer for Greenwich Village. Her post cards of New York and Boston on sale at the shops. But it is in the special field of home portraiture that Miss Bealls [sic] has won her highest recognition." (p. 27) As Greenwich Village became a destination for tourists interested in seeking out bohemian lifestyles, Beals' postcards capitalized on the area's popularity. Her photos of bohemians and their haunts can also be seen in Ralph I. Bartholomew's 1920 history and guidebook, Greenwich Village.
In 1918 Beals rented a new studio at 292 Fifth Avenue, opposite Alfred Stieglitz's picture gallery. Not two years later she moved again, to 333 Fourth Avenue, to a larger studio but farther away from her Greenwich Village clientele. Beals continued to take portraits, news photos, and street scenes. Unlike other photographers, she was not interested in specialization, preferring to lend her hand to whatever interested her. Beals later claimed that this approach was actually less lucrative, and suggested that women interested in photography should specialize in one topic in order to make money. It was hard for Beals to support her daughter on her own income, and to take care of her while working. To ease the strain, Nanette was sent to boarding school, though it required Beals to work even harder to cover the expense.
Jessie Tarbox Beals turned 50 in 1920, and the decade began with career accolades worthy of a woman who had worked hard at her craft for the previous twenty years. Several of her photos were exhibited in 1921 and 1922 in shows in Toronto and Buffalo. Beals began to focus some of her energy on poetry, for which she had found a gift when making the Greenwich Village postcards. After a few of her poems were published, she joined the League of American Pen Women, an organization promoting women writers. In 1921, enthusiastic about belonging to such a prestigious organization, Beals offered to take the other members' portraits at no charge. This kind offer did not aid her declining financial situation, but added images to her growing print library. She was constantly re-printing photographs for new attempts at publication, sometimes mounting smaller prints onto cardstock to attract buyers. Women photographers were becoming more common each year, making Beals a less unique or automatic choice for commissions. Beals herself may have contributed to the competition with her talks at clubs and on the radio, which often dispensed advice to aspiring women photographers. While a popular figure on the lecture circuit, Beals found herself growing older and not able to "hustle" for pictures as she had done in her youth.
Nevertheless, in 1926 and 1927 Beals rented a luxury two-story apartment and studio on East 57th Street where she entertained in style. The number of portraits she was taking, and thus her income, continued to decline, perhaps due to increased competition. However, she continued to engage in a variety of projects to support herself, including taking photos to illustrate a popular children's book, Your Workshop by Edna Plimpton (1926). Eventually Beals decided to focus on garden photography, a field in which she had been active for several years, although had not taken seriously as its excitement value was less than that of news events and bohemian goings-on. In her later years, less excitement proved a good thing and provided steady work. She had contributed twenty-nine photos to Beautiful Gardens in America, a 1915 book by Louise Sheldon, and several more to the enlarged 1924 edition. In 1927 Beals started photographing small gardens in Greenwich Village, then began to get requests from magazines and residents for photos of large estates on Long Island and in Westchester County. Her garden photos from this time period were published in Town and Country, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, and other magazines. Beals did not consider the focus on a more staid subject to be a tragedy; her notes for a lecture given in the late 1920s read, "My advice to you is 'Be different.' Do things in an original way -- arrange your groups artistically, not in a stereotypical manner -- take your houses from an interesting angleâ?¦." Even garden photography involved enough challenges to satisfy the indomitable Jessie Tarbox Beals.
In 1928, Beals self-published a volume of her poetry, Songs of A Wanderer, illustrated with her own photographs. The photographs included in the book were all accompanied by poems inspired by the scenes or people pictured. Most of the print run was damaged in a printer's fire; only a few copies survived. That same year, her economic prospects in New York declining, Beals decided to move to California. There she imagined a more stable income and prosperous lifestyle photographing wealthy people and their gardens, as many people she knew from earlier years in Greenwich Village had moved to artist colonies in southern California, or were working in Hollywood. In preparation for her move, she sold all but her favorite glass plate negatives to a manufacturer of picture frames. Their emulsion was stripped off, the negatives lost forever, and the glass was used in the new frames. Around this time Beals finally stopped using glass plates and switched to film, years after most of her contemporaries. The new film negatives were more easily portable and thus more appropriate to her lifestyle. Beals took the teenage Nanette, who had been living apart from her mother for most of her childhood, and left for California, stopping in Chicago along the way to take portraits and to sell older prints to new customers.
In California, Beals lived and worked first in Santa Barbara, and then in Hollywood, which she found more engaging. Again, her photos of estates and gardens were popular with magazine publishers. Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 cost Beals most of her business. She spent the next few years traveling with her daughter between New York and Chicago in search of steady work. In 1934 both mother and daughter settled in New York, where Nanette briefly held a job working as the assistant to photographer Mattie Hewitt. Beals continued to take her own pictures, and Nanette became her assistant, carrying the camera and equipment. They lived on 11th Street in Greenwich Village, around the corner from Beals' first studio in New York.
Beals's garden photography of this time period was regularly published and continued to win awards, including several from the New York Herald Tribune in 1936, but making a living through photography was difficult during the Depression. Despite the infirmity of old age and several serious illnesses, Beals continued to photograph until right before her death, though medical expenses and frequent hospitalizations demanded all of her savings. Jessie Tarbox Beals died on May 30, 1942, in a charity ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
Alland, Alexander. Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Woman News Photographer. (New York: Camera/Graphic Press, Ltd., 1978)
Arens, Egmont. The Little Book of Greenwich Village. (New York: Egmont Arens, 1918)
Greenwich Village Spectator, Vol. 1 No. 1 (April 1917) to Vol. 2, No. 2 (May 1918)