Jessie Richmond Tarbox Beals was born to John and Marie Bassett Tarbox in Ontario, Canada on December 23, 1870. Her father, a machinist, invented a portable sewing machine, which enabled his family to live comfortably for seven years, until his patent expired. The family split shortly thereafter, and Mrs. Tarbox became a working single mother to her children. After receiving her teaching certification in 1887, Miss Tarbox settled in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Her interest in photography began the following year when she won a camera prize for selling magazine subscriptions. She began supplementing her income by taking portraits of Smith College students, and after attending a Chautauqua Assembly educational seminar, her primary focus became news photography.
An 1893 trip to photograph the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago changed Jessie Tarbox's life forever. For the next three weeks, she and her ever-present compact Kodak camera photographed the Exposition's many sights and visitors. She also made important contacts with other female photographers such as Gertrude Kasebier. After that experience, her job as a small-town schoolteacher held little appeal. After her marriage to Amherst alumnus Alfred Tennyson Beals in 1897, the couple became a freelance photographic team with Mrs. Beals wielding the camera and her husband serving as her darkroom assistant. When she began earning more money from freelancing than from teaching, she resigned her position in 1900 to become a full-time photographer. The Beals settled in Buffalo, New York, where Mrs. Beals joined the staff of The Buffalo Inquirer, thus becoming the first female news photographer. Anxious to demonstrate her rightful place alongside her male counterparts, she exhibited her strength by using a cumbersome 8x10 format camera weighing 50 pounds. When covering the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, she photographed such luminaries as Presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was so impressed with Mrs. Beals' work, he provided her with credentials to photograph a reunion of his Rough Riders in 1905.
As Mrs. Beals' professional career flourished - with her photographs featured in such popular publications as The Christian Science Monitor, Harper's Bazaar, and The New York Times - her marriage floundered. The addition of daughter Nanette did nothing to ease marital discord and the couple separated in 1917, officially divorcing seven years' later. Settling in Greenwich Village, Mrs. Beals opened a successful art gallery and tearoom, and chronicled important regional social causes of the period including the evolution of the Greenwich Settlement House. She continued her photographic career well into her 60s, changing to lighter cameras to accommodate her age and increasing physical infirmity. Jessie Tarbox Beals maintained a small studio and darkroom until her death on May 20, 1942 at the age of 71. She once observed, "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." Today, photojournalism is an equal opportunity employer, and twenty-first century female news photographers owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who opened the door on what had once been exclusively a men's club - Jessie Tarbox Beals.
2013 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 125-126.
2011 Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) by Beverly W. Brannan (URL: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/womphotoj/bealsessay.html).
1978 Jessie Tarbox Beals, First Woman News Photographer (New York: Camera/Graphic Press), p. 53.
2014 Museum of the City of New York: Jessie Tarbox Beals (URL: http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWHJEFTM&SMLS=1&RW=1600&RH=775).
1922 Photo-Era Magazine, Vol. XLVIII (Wolfeboro, NH: A. H. Beardsley), p. 264.
2013 Portraits of Jessie Tarbox Beals with Her Old Cameras (URL: http://www.shootingfilm.net/2013/12/portraits-of-jessie-tarbox-beals-with.html).
1988 The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn-of-the-Century America by C. Jane Gover (Albany, NY: State University of New York), p. 43.
2000 Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism by Laura Wexler (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), pp. 262-263.
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