Cameras and Jessie Tarbox Beals

Cameras and Jessie Tarbox Beals

SUBJECT: So according to Beals’ obituary in the New York Times from 1942, she acquired this camera as a result of it being a subscription prize from a children’s magazine that was published in Boston. And this kind of camera was relatively inexpensive– this small box camera. Essentially a hole in a box with, perhaps, a lens. I haven’t examined it closely enough to know, but the light’s passing through the hole and projecting itself onto some kind of film on the back of the camera. To have fallen in love with photography through this device, means you love the elemental magic of photography. This is not one of our brilliant muralist digital cameras of today. This is a very basic apparatus. But at this moment, a few things are happening in photography of particular relevance to her life. Things that are happening that she took advantage of in an extraordinary way. And one has to do with the size of the camera– the fact that it’s shrunk down from these large boxes that were used previously into this small handheld device. For most of the middle of the 19th century, cameras were large boxes. Quite heavy on tripods, they took a lot to lug around. But beginning in the late 1880s, we have the introduction of these small cameras. Most famously from Kodak in 1888, although there were a number of companies producing these small cameras. They were hand-held, they were much less conspicuous. They allowed the photographer to be mobile, to move around, to take photographs of people, sometimes when people were not aware that they were being photographed. For this reason, they were often called detective cameras and a lot of ethical questions were raised about whether or not photographers had become a little too inconspicuous. But they also afforded opportunities to capture modern life on the fly. So photographers, now, could walk around and snap pictures of things that were just unfolding on the street in a way that photographers of earlier generations couldn’t do. A key technological development for Beals, was the advent of halftone technology for reproducing photographs in print. For the early decades of photography, there was no easy way to turn a photograph into an illustration for a newspaper because it had to be converted, basically, to a wood engraving, which was a technology that predated photography. So no labor was saved, you were just using the photograph as the model, rather than a scene in real life. With halftone technology, a screen was used to photo mechanically reproduce the photograph in print. And this gets perfected in the 1890s, more or less. So right around the time that Beals is starting to think, perhaps, of becoming a photojournalist. So she’s getting in on the ground floor. This is really a new occupation. An occupation that didn’t really exist prior to these technological developments. So it’s rather extraordinary that she managed to find herself in this occupation by dint of her effort and initiative. One thing we tend to forget today is the extent to which these small cameras were associated with the emergence of the bicycle, which comes out at around the same time. The safety bike comes out in the early 1890s. Absolute revolution. Some people call it a fad, but they’re not far seeing enough. The bike is a tremendous revolution. It’s followed so quickly by the automobile. That looking backward, we just focus on Henry Ford and the emergence of the automobile. But the emergence of the bike, when it happened was huge. And Susan B Anthony said it did more to liberate women than anything else. And this notion that the world was becoming more mobile, more accelerated– and that this offered opportunities for liberation– is something very important to remember. It was unsettling. People were worried that the world was becoming too fast. That it was somehow becoming unreal. But I think for enterprising women, this was a time of great opportunity.

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