Ahead of Her Time – Jessie Tarbox Beals Paved a Path of Innovation for Female Photographers

Jessie Tarbox Beals

Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field.

Diana in the Snow

Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.

Levitt aligned herself with the great Walker Evans in 1938-39 and enjoyed early success just prior to her 26th birthday when the Museum of Modern Art displayed her work in an inaugural exhibit in its new photography section. Her photographs of children playing and drawing with chalk on the streets of NYC have inspired many imitators.

Orkin is probably most well-known for the photograph, American Girl in Italy, taken in 1951 during a 5-month assignment abroad. She enjoyed great success as a freelance photographer, working for magazines including Life, Look, and the Ladies Home Journal. In 1943, she married filmmaker and fellow Photo League member Morris Engel, and the two of them collaborated on many projects. The most famous of these is the 1953 film, The Little Fugitive.

The First Female Photojournalist

Beals was the first woman hired as a newspaper staff photographer by The Buffalo Inquirer in 1902. But in 1904, she was full of wanderlust and decided to leave the newspaper, going to St. Louis to document the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair), her husband Alfred Tennyson Beals accompanying her as an assistant. Beals had difficulty getting access to the fair, but eventually became the only woman officially recognized as a photographer there. During her six months at the fair, she became a bit of a celebrity herself, taking pictures of luminaries such as President Theodore Roosevelt and his oldest son, Theodore Jr. She had a great knack for self-promotion and had herself photographed in the gondola of one of the airships.

St. Louis World's Fair

After enjoying some fame in St. Louis, she and her husband moved to NYC in 1905, where she would entrench herself for many years. Despite her photojournalism background, she could not land a newspaper job, so decided to freelance and set up a studio on Sixth Avenue. Her portrait business thrived, and in 1906, she and other women photographers were featured in a group show sponsored by the Camera Club of Hartford, Conn., where she was singled out for special recognition. While her professional life was going well, things were becoming increasingly strained on the home front. Although Beals enjoyed the bohemian life in Greenwich Village and befriended the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, and other artists, her botanist husband was not into this lifestyle.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Children Playing

By the time Beals gave birth to her daughter Nanette in 1911, there was some speculation as to whether her husband was the father – their lives had become so estranged. A Library of Congress article states that the man who fathered Nanette was a paramour she met through her friend, the freelance writer Harriet Rice. In 1917, Beals separated from her husband, set up a new studio and gallery in Greenwich Village in 1920, and finally divorced him in 1923. Although some of the people she photographed in the Village were well-known, there were a host of more obscure, but equally colorful characters. There is a wonderful article that provides a background on some of these shopkeepers and businesses.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bead Shop

Sonia's Shop

By 1928, Beals was 58 and she could no longer maintain her frenetic pace. She switched to lighter cameras and flexible film. She and Nanette moved to California where wives of motion picture executives paid her to have their estates photographed. This project ended soon after it had begun with the stock market crash of 1929. Mother and daughter returned to NYC in the 1930s, where Beals rented space in a darkroom, living in a basement apartment around the corner from her first NYC studio. In late 1941, Beals became bedridden – a lifetime of working around the clock and living a lavish lifestyle took a toll on her body. When she was  admitted to the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital she was destitute, dying there on May 30, 1942 at age 71.

It must have been quite a sight, seeing Beals carrying an 8 x 10 view camera, glass plates and a tripod. All told, this equipment weighed close to 50 pounds. Not to mention that she was also encumbered by a whalebone corset and a hat the size of a flying saucer. What really enthralls me about Beals’ photos is the subject matter – Greenwich Village, a personal favorite haunt of mine going back to the 1970s. What is evident in all these photos is that the Village was a hotbed of creativity even back in the early 1900s. Of course, it has gone through many reiterations in the last 100 years – some good, and some bad. I have endeavored to capture a few of these transformations, comparing what Beals photographed back then to what is on the site now.

Current Site of Down the Rabbit Hole

Current site of The Bead Shop

Current Site of Sonia's Shop

Current site of Linn Shop


I close my eyes, lest
He should see the hate
That burns beneath their lids
And then I wait and wait, until
He leaves my side.
Intense you say: yes I am intense
A pessimist deep, brooding over life—
A woman with strong feelings,
Proud instincts and heart sorrows
With hope of little joy, save that of work,
With longings for sweet tenderness—
A home, a comrade and deep sympathy…

By Jessie Tarbox Beals

Beals Self Portrait at the Village Art Gallery


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