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Sign up for our next seminar featuring Dr Lottie Whalen

Wednesday, 25 October 2023, at 4pm BST/GMT+1

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Postcards from the Smock Colony: Jessie Tarbox Beals’ photographs of Bohemian Greenwich Village

In 1917, Vanity Fair christened New York’s vibrant bohemian Greenwich Village neighbourhood ‘the smock colony’. The name was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the community of creative women who lived, worked, agitated for change and partied until dawn in the Village, identifiable by their patterned smock dresses, sandals, and bobbed hair. The stories of many of these women would be lost, if not for a trove of evocative photographic postcards by Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942). Beals was one of the first women photojournalists in the United States, notorious for her daring pursuit of a story. Turning her lens to Greenwich Village, she captured women casting off traditions and expectations to pursue independent lives; in the process, these women sought to shape the city and its cultural life in their image.

‘Charlotte Powell, Village Painter, c. 1905-16’, Jessie Tarbox Beals (1871-1942), Collection of the New-York Historical Society, USA

In this paper, Dr Lottie Whalen will take a closer look at Beals’ photographs of Greenwich Village, piecing together biographies, networks, and key locations to explore the remarkable woman-led artistic and political scene that flourished there. It considers how Beals carefully associated herself with this scene to build her own profile, in an act of self-fashioning typical of the modern women she photographed. The fact that this rare archive was almost lost when Beals died highlights the challenges of mapping women’s everyday lives and activities (often unrecorded or unrecognised). This paper considers the extent to which Beals’ photographs challenge and reframe perceived notions of women’s influence in early twentieth century New York. Positioning women as active agents in urban life and creators of culture – rather than footnotes in the history of men – Beals’ photographic postcards offer a glimpse into a unique moment when feminist and socialist politics, creative self-expression, and a defiance of the limits that wider society placed on gender and sexuality collided.

About the Speaker

Dr Lottie Whalen is an independent researcher and writer, with interests in feminist art history, modernism, and modern and contemporary textile art. She completed an AHRC funded PhD (‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’) at Queen Mary University of London in 2018. She is the co-founder of Decorating Dissidence, an interdisciplinary arts project that explores radical histories of craft and making from modernism to the contemporary. Her first book, Radicals and Rogues: the Women Who Made New York Modern, was published by Reaktion in October 2023.

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