A Hustle Here: How the Nation's First Female Photojournalist Captured New York

June 19, 2017

Hi everybody,

 

Welcome back to Out of the Archives and into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.

 

Today's post honors Jessie Tarbox Beals, the nation's first published female photojournalist. You can find her work at the New York Historical Society, or online via several institutions including The Museum of the City of New York, Harvard University Library, and the Smithsonian Institution. 

 

 

In 1904, 34-year-old Beals identified "the ability to hustle"  as a photojournalist's "most necessary qualification," followed by a "health and strength, a good news instinct...[and] a fair photographic outfit." Beals would know. In 1902, she became the the first woman in the country to be hired by a newspaper as a staff photographer when she joined the ranks of The Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier.  At a time when most photojournalists neither expected or received personal credit for their work, Beals was known nationwide for the images she captured.

 

She became as famous as the pictures she produced because she was willing to hustle for remarkable images. For example, at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, she climbed into the basket of an airship (while carrying her 50-pound camera and sporting a whalebone corset) in order to capture clear aerial views of moving dirigibles at the Exposition's Airshow. 

 

Ultimately, she was named official Fair photographer for the New York Herald Tribune, Leslie's Weekly, three Buffalo newspapers, all local St. Louis papers, and the Fair's own publicity department. That's not a bad haul, considering she was initially denied a press pass, but Beals didn't stop there. She noticed dignitaries milling around the Fair Grounds, and took it upon herself to photograph them. After making portraits of William Howard Taft, she followed President Teddy Roosevelt around until he invited her to join him as a credentialed photographer at a Rough Riders Reunion in San Antonio in 1905. 

 

That year, she established a studio in New York at 13 East 57th Street. She took sharp-focus portraits of writers, artists, celebrities and well-to-do New Yorkers while her husband Alfred (whom she had taught the trade) managed the business. But the confines of studio portraiture didn't suit her. She told the Washington Post in 1906, "This staying in one place is no good." Instead, she envisioned a globe-trotting career, explaining "I want to freelance it around the world. England, Australia, New Zealand - they're all easy because the language is the same.  I'm going to do them next. But I want to take in Europe and Japan, and China and India, too...I've got to load up my old camera and take another hike before long." She never established the international career she dreamed of, but she did take to the road, traveling around the nation, and selling work to a variety of publications.

 

Her husband didn't share her wandering spirit, and the relationship faltered. By 1911, she had a child with another man, and turned her focus to urban and social photography in New York. She documented the drama of the rising skyline, the degradation of tenement life, and the fervor of the political movements of her time. 

 

Explaining the changing nature of her work to the New York Times in 1913, she said, "I am photographing tenement-house conditions now for the purpose of reform, tuberculosis prevention work, making records for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Health Board - work that I could not do a year ago, but which I have grown up to."  Her sensitivity for the capturing urban life continued to grow. 

 

 

In 1917, she divorced her husband, opened a tearoom and art gallery in Greenwich Village, and turned her lens on the neighborhood's bohemian haunts. Her photos offer a relaxed and intimate view of the crowded spaces - like The Samovar or Grace Godwin's Garret - that produced some of the 20th century's greatest art. The informal nature of these works are made even more special by Beals's own annotations. On one photo featuring a woman surrounded by a small group, she wrote "Adele Kennedy: The Only Guide to Greenwich Village, New York." 

 

 

On others, she added some poetic flair. Over an image of Polly Holladay's Restaurant at 137 MacDougal Street, she wrote:

 

When life is very strenuous and spirits are way down

You’d better go to Polly’s in little Greenwich Town

For there the clans are gathered – its there you’ll find ‘em all

The artists and the writers ranged along the wall.

Miss Polly takes the money and Mike says he just can’t

Wait any faster on the folks in Polly’s Res-tau-rant

 

Polly's catered to a rotating crowd of luminaries including Eugene O'Neil, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman and John Sloan, who were all members of the Liberal Club that met upstairs. The Club billed itself as "the meeting place for those interested in new ideas," and the restaurant hosted Saturday meetings of The Heterodoxy Club, "for unorthodox women." Beals would certainly have qualified, and her work helped inspire other female photographers. In fact, many women made the city their subject. By the mid-1920s, there were said to be at least 150 professional female photographers in New York.  

 

You can learn more about Beals, the world she captured, and some of the other female pioneers who shook the city at the turn of the last century, at the Brooklyn Brainery on July 31st!  

 

Happy History Hunting!

 

Lucie

 

 

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