Born in 1870 in Ontario, Jessie Tarbox Beals starting taking photos in 1888, the year she won a camera for selling a magazine subscription.
She then scored staff photographer jobs at national newspapers, mostly in upstate New York and New England.
Beals was the rare female news photographer in a field dominated by men—partly because journalism was generally closed to women.
But also, few women could lug the 50 pounds of camera equipment required for the job (while wearing a whalebone corset, no less).
In 1905, she and her husband settled in New York City. Here she produced some of her most enduring images, particularly after she moved to Greenwich Village in 1917 and opened a studio in Sheridan Square.
A favorite subject was Bohemian life: the tearooms and cafes where writers and artists congregated, as well as the Village’s crooked alleys and mews.
The Ink Pot, above, was a small magazine run from a Sheridan Square office, per the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.
She also trained her camera on street life scenes, particularly of city kids at school (below, a school lunch at P.S. 40) and at play, selling photos to leading magazines and newspapers and turning some into postcards.
She credited her success with her ability to hustle work—and also her inner strength. “‘Mere feminine, delicate, Dresden china type of women get nowhere in business or professional life,’” she wrote in her diary, according to a 2000 New York Times article.
“They marry millionaires, if they are lucky. But if a woman is to make headway with men, she must be truly masculine.’”
Beals (at left) moved away from New York in the late 1920s to work in Chicago and Los Angeles.
The stock market crash brought her back to the city, where she struggled to make a living in an increasingly crowded profession.
She died in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital in 1942 at age 71, destitute.
[Top photos Library of Congress; school photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection]