Jessie Tarbox Beals: First Female Photojournalist and Night Photographer

For much of its history, photography, like many other fields, was dominated by rich white men who had the freedom and means to practice it. Still, a few years since its invention in the 1820s, photography as an art and a hobby was picked up and spread quickly across genders and nationalities, with a few women in Europe, America, and Asia professionally engaging in genres such as landscape and portrait photography well before the end of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until its last decade that terrain of photojournalism and night photography saw the arrival of a woman, one by the name of Jessie Tarbox Beals.

Jessie Tarbox Beals was on born December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. At the age of 17, she became a teacher and moved to Massachusetts for a teaching job. At 18, Beals got her first camera and began to take up photography as a hobby, offering her students four portraits for a dollar. Her interest became more serious when in 1983, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she met rising photographers of the time, including Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier. In 1900, her first photo was published in Vermont’s Windham Country Reformer, making her the first ever female photojournalist. In 1901, she and her husband, Alfred Tennyson Beals, moved to Buffalo, New York. In late 1902, she launched into photojournalism.

As a professional, Jessie Beals could be seen hauling her 50 pounds of equipment, including a 8-by-10 camera, tripod, and glass plates down the street in her corseted, ankle-length dress and big, feathery hat. Determined to work twice as hard as any man to put herself ahead, Beals took special pride in her physical strength as well as her journalistic ability to “hustle,” as she called it, to get the photos she want. One such incident was when she climbed to a top of a bookshelf with her 50-pound equipment to snap a photo of a court case, a practice that was forbidden, consequently earning herself a five-column front page. Another was when she set of an enormous flash explosion in the street, shattering off all its windows and terrorizing all its citizens, and got away just in time with her hard-earned photograph.

As a night photographer, Beal’s style diverged sharply from other night photographers of the time, most prominently of whom was Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was the leading figure of the pictorialism, a movement that romanticizes its subjects, most characteristically through blurring the images. Both artists at one point chose New York City a their subject, but while Stieglitz shot the city as soft dreamscapes, Beals saw it in the clear, sharp focus typical of a photojournalist, showing it in a more urban and realistic light.

Beal’s night photos, while interesting to examine, does not make up a large part of her works, indicating that Beals did not make much money off them. But she never gave it up, shooting night photos throughout her entire career.

Due to her resourcefulness and “hustling” skills, Beals rose to success and fame. While her professional life flourished, her personal one came under strain and broke, with her divorcing her husband in 1917 and, after a few years, sending her daughter away to boarding schools and relatives. Through the entire affair Beals’ strength as a working woman did not falter, but over time it came ironically to light that this very strength that propelled her to such heights would take her down.

Based on her success as a female photographers, Beals gave many lectures encouraging other women to follow in her footsteps into this artistic workforce. Many women did exactly so. By 1922, Beals found that the market was flooded with competition – the very women she had inspired – and left New York for California to shoot photos of Hollywood executives and their estates. She never stopped taking night photographs.

Beals eventually returned to New York City in the 1930s, but she never regained her fame from before. Her earlier wealth steadily declined, and towards the end of her career she lived in poverty like she had in its beginning. In her final years, upon self-reflection, Beals felt that her willingness to take any job had prevented her from developing a signatory style. Be that as it may, her few night photography works remain outstanding in this period of time for its bold, focused portrayal of the quiet, mundane, urban night through the eye of a journalist and, more importantly, a pioneer.