On the life and work of photographer Beatrice Tonnesen
Camera Obscura: As the Victorian age gave way to the 20th century, a beautiful young Chicago photographer named Beatrice Tonnesen made her mark with a brilliant idea: using live models in advertisements. But Tonnesen’s pioneering role, like her artfully composed images (which often were usurped by well-known illustrators), faded into history—that is, until an inquisitive collector rescued Tonnesen from obscurity
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A radiant, blue-eyed blond, Beatrice Tonnesen never married. "Art was her love," says Lois Emerson, the collector who rediscovered the forgotten photographer.
On September 19, 1949, Lisa Fonssagrives, recognized today as the original supermodel, appeared on the cover of Time magazine above the provocative question “Do illusions sell refrigerators?” The story inside, “Billion-Dollar Baby,” while ostensibly about the booming advertising business, actually focused on that industry’s “simplest and most potent symbol, the female figure.”
Casting its glance backward, Time charted what it called the “birth of the model,” a phenomenon that occurred at the tail end of the Victorian era, when advertising was still “a strange new land.” At that time, given the high cost of mass-producing a photograph, most companies relied on slogans, jingles, and illustrations to promote their products. “Then,” stated Time, “destiny struck in Chicago: a photographer named Beatrice Tonnesen used pictures of live girls in ads for the first time.”
Beatrice Tonnesen? If you have never heard of this giant of the visual arts—a woman singled out ten years ago by one magazine as among the “most influential graphics people of the last millennium”—you are not alone. An accomplished portrait and commercial photographer (as well as an occasional inventor), Tonnesen created hundreds of pictures that were viewed by huge audiences. The advertising images she created between 1896 and 1930 became familiar to many, and her photos also provided the inspiration for that era’s illustrators, who, wielding brush and paint, cashed in on Tonnesen’s labor, producing the colorful posters and calendars that were so popular nearly 100 years ago.
Yet, despite a modicum of fame during her lifetime, Tonnesen remained cloaked in anonymity, a fate she seemed to have accepted as part of her job description. Today she has largely disappeared from memory, even among the folks who might be expected to know her name. For example, David Travis, who retired in 2008 as the longtime curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Richard Cahan, the author and former Chicago Sun-Times photo editor who led the City 2000 project—two men who probably know as much as anyone about photography over the ages in this city—had never heard of Tonnesen until asked about her recently. “There are a lot of things knocking around in my mind,” said Travis, “but I don’t think that [name] was ever one of them.”
Like Travis and Cahan, I was unfamiliar with Tonnesen—that is, until January 2009, when I received an e-mail from Lois Emerson, a retired Michigan school administrator now living with her husband, Terry, in an outbuilding of Castle Rimburg near Aachen, Germany. About 20 years ago, Emerson had begun collecting works by the illustrator R. Atkinson Fox, a Canadian-born artist who died in Chicago in 1935. Early on, Emerson had noted that some of Fox’s paintings and illustrations had a “decidedly photographic look to them” (as she later told me). That point was driven home when she came across a photograph entitled “Hello, Daddy” that depicted a toddler in diapers who was holding a telephone. Emerson recognized the toddler as an occasional subject of Fox’s work, and while she never did learn the name of the baby, she was eventually able to identify the photographer: Beatrice Tonnesen, a woman with whom Fox had shared studio space in Chicago. Suddenly Emerson had a new passion—rescuing from obscurity a woman whom time, if not Time, had forgotten.
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Beatrice Tonnesen (her name is sometimes spelled “Tonneson”) was born in Winneconne, Wisconsin, on January 24, 1871, the fourth of the five children of Tonnes Tonnesen and Mary Sumner Tonnesen. Her father, a storekeeper, had emigrated from Norway in 1849, and when Beatrice was five, Tonnes moved again, taking his family to Oshkosh. “The family soon recognized that art was to be my career,” Beatrice recalled when she was 83, “so I was given all the art opportunities Oshkosh offered.” Her inclination toward the visual arts may have been influenced by a hearing impairment that afflicted her from childhood. At the suggestion of her sister Clara, she began studying with Cook Ely, a local photographer. In her old age, Tonnesen remembered that her mother had paid Ely $100 for the lessons.
Tonnesen proved to be an adept student. In 1895, when she was 24, she moved to Menominee, Michigan, and opened her own photo studio. She lived with Clara, who had taken over the failing business of her late husband. Clara turned the business around, and when Beatrice got the opportunity to buy out a Michigan Avenue photographer, Clara invested some of her own money in the project and accompanied her sister to Chicago.
Despite some trepidation—arriving in Chicago, the two sisters felt like characters from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, Beatrice recalled later—Tonnesen’s Windy City success was instantaneous. “When ‘Beatrice Tonnesen, Photographer’ appeared in big gold letters across the large plate glass window of the studio [at 1301 South Michigan Avenue],” she remembered, “it did the trick.” The Palmers, Armours, Pullmans, and other prominent families posed for portraits, and Bertha Palmer, the champion of women artists at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, helped select Tonnesen as the representative of U.S. photography at the Paris Exposition of 1900.
Accounts vary, however, as to whether Tonnesen actually attended. More than one newspaper reported that she had addressed the exposition’s International Congress of Photography. But late in life, Tonnesen contradicted those accounts. “This was of course a great honor,” she recalled, “but I was not capable to undertake such a stunt as that, the great handicap of my defective hearing making it impossible.”
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Photograph: Courtesy Oshkosh Public Museum, Oschkosh, Wi. All rights reserved.