UK’s first female photojournalist honored

PetaPixel | Museum of London | The Guardian | Library of Congress

Christina Broom, who died in 1939, was Britain’s first female photojournalist and the documenter of life before, during and after World War I. She also got a late start, the Museum of London’s Anna Sparham wrote Friday.

It was with the fast approaching centenary of the First World War that we considered this acquisition for the museum. Broom photographed between 1904 and 1939 and saw the war through her photography of the soldiers going to and returning from the Front as well as documenting London before, during and after that time. From the outset however I also wanted to focus on this work of a woman photographer; a woman who was unique, intriguing, skilled and largely underappreciated, her story not yet being widely told. That Broom was 40 when she taught herself photography, and that her daughter Winifred made all the prints, is in itself a great story opener.

On Friday, April 4, the Museum of London opened a small display of Broom’s photography, with a bigger display planned for the future. Broom’s images include one of Rudyard Kipling’s son, Jack, who died in the war and inspired the poem “My Boy Jack,” Mark Brown reported in The Guardian, as well as images of the royal family and soldiers with their families.

The collection shows that Broom was a witness to the key moments of early 20th century life in London including being one of only two people allowed to photograph Edward VII lying in state. Her photographs were used extensively by newspapers including the Daily Sketch, Sunday Herald and Evening News, always with the credit Mrs Alfred Broom. Sparham said the images had strength and relevance in their own right but “it is the photographer’s own fascinating story of determination and entrepreneurialism that makes them truly come alive”.

The U.S.’s first female photojournalist was working around the same time as Broom, according to the Library of Congress.

Jessie Tarbox Beals first started as a staff photographer at the The Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier in 1902.

Although rarely hired again as a staff photographer, her freelance news photographs and her tenacity and self-promotion set her apart in a competitive field through the 1920s. At a time when most women’s roles were confined to the home and most women who ventured into photography maintained homelike portrait studios, Jessie called attention to her willingness to work outdoors and in situations generally thought too rough for a woman. She excelled in photographing such news worthy events as the 1904 world’s fair as well as documentary photography of houses, gardens, Bohemian Greenwich Village, slums, and school children.

Beals, who shot the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, gathered images for a number of U.S. publications, including shots about what motherhood meant in different cultures.

According to the Library of Congress, “she climbed ladders and floated in hot air balloons to get her shots.”

The Library of Congress also has collections from women photojournalists from Beals through the 1990s. In 1904, Beals described the profession with this:

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.

Edna St. Vincent Millay and husband Eugen Jan Boissevain in front of house at 75-1/2 Bedford Street, New York (Jessie Tarbox Beals/Library of Congress)

In 1941, Beals became bedridden, the Library of Congress writes, and she died in the charity ward of a New York hospital in 1942.

Jessie’s versatility helped make her one of the first female photojournalists, but by the end of her life she worried that it was exactly that willingness to work at any assignment she could get that contributed to her lack of cachet.

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