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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

A radiant, blue-eyed blond, Beatrice Tonnesen never married.
A radiant, blue-eyed blond, Beatrice Tonnesen never married. “Art was her love,” says Lois Emerson, the collector who rediscovered the forgotten photographer.   Photograph: Courtesy Oshkosh Public Museum, Oschkosh, Wi. All rights reserved.

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The life and work of Beatrice Tonnesen

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.

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.”

Even without considering her hearing problems, one has to wonder whether Tonnesen could have spared the time to travel to Paris. Her studio was flourishing, and the commissions piled up. In August 1897, for instance, after getting an order for photos of 100 babies—50 of them laughing and 50 of them crying—Tonnesen put an ad in the Chicago Tribune inviting mothers to bring their infants to her studio. Let the lady photographer snap a few pictures of the baby, and Mom would receive two free photos of her child. The lure worked, and scores of mothers and babies converged on what the Tribune described as Tonnesen’s “fashionable Michigan Avenue studio.”

Aided by her sister Clara, and wearing a big white apron stuffed with toys and gingerbread, Tonnesen set to work. Her first subject was a roly-poly African American baby, who cooed for the camera after being bribed with candy. The child who followed had yet to take his first steps—but as soon as Tonnesen had him properly posed, he slipped down from his chair and toddled across the room to grab a doll on a table. The baby beamed, and Tonnesen had her second smile.

So it went for another five hours as Tonnesen, in the words of a Tribune reporter, waved her arms and shouted “‘boo’ until she had forgotten all the other words in her vocabulary. . . . [She] would exclaim, ‘Laugh, baby, laugh,’ and if, out of sheer perversity, the baby cried, the picture was taken just the same.” On that particular day, a tear was as good as a smile.

Tonnesen’s reliance on a random selection of babies to fulfill her commission was not atypical behavior. While she wasn’t averse to using professional models, Tonnesen preferred to photograph the people she encountered on her travels around the city. In 1898, a local paper reported that it was not uncommon to see “Chicago’s woman photographer” chasing a pretty girl down the street, hoping to secure her services as “one of the famous ‘Tonnesen models’ that are in demand the country over.” Given Tonnesen’s stylish attire—long, elaborately adorned dresses and big, gravity-defying hats—it must have been memorable indeed to see the pretty blue-eyed blond sprinting after her latest find.

Speaking with the Tribune, Tonnesen described her methods. “When I am walking along the street or am in a store and see a person who strikes me as particularly desirable for a model, I usually stop her right on the spot and tell her what I want,” she said. “Of course, I have to use a little discretion, but I am almost never refused.”

Tonnesen’s use of live models had a profound impact on advertising. Yet from the perspective of the early 21st century—when real human pitchmen are so ubiquitous that they seem to have been with us forever—the notion that one person, much less a young woman living in Chicago in the late 1890s, came up with the idea initially seems preposterous. But that appears to be exactly what happened.

“One day,” remembered Tonnesen, “we thought up a fine scheme. We would make advertising pictures using live models, which had never been done before.” As Time noted in 1949, Tonnesen’s claim was no idle boast—and in 2000, the Toronto magazine Graphics Exchange offered a millennial tip of the hat “to the woman who first demonstrated the concept of combining type, illustration, and photography in advertising. Chicago-based photographer Beatrice Tonnesen pioneered this style of promotion . . . and over one hundred years later, print advertising still hasn’t found a better way to sell product.”

As with so many great ideas, Tonnesen’s innovation had a lot to do with timing. As the late photography curator and historian Robert Sobieszek wrote in 1988 in The Art of Persuasion: A History of Advertising Photography: “It was only after the invention of the halftone process in the 1880s and offset printing soon after the turn of the century that the photographic image became economically compatible with type and letterpress printing, and could then be included in advertising.” In other words, Tonnesen had the good sense to start using live models in ads at the exact moment when technology could successfully implement her idea.

Regrettably, Tonnesen has generally failed to get the credit she deserves; Sobieszek, for instance, didn’t mention her in his book. Given the nature of her work, that may not have bothered Tonnesen, who seemed more interested in finding her next model than in tooting her own horn.

One day in 1913, while riding a Chicago streetcar, Tonnesen spotted a toddler with a blond bob. She approached the little girl’s mother, introduced herself, and went into her spiel. “It isn’t that [your daughter] is beautiful,” Tonnesen said, “but she’s photogenic.” An odd bit of cajolery, but persuasive nonetheless. Before mother and daughter got off at their stop, Tonnesen had added another model to her roster.

Tonnesen’s discovery that day had a double payoff. It turned out that the little girl, named Betty Crowe, had a young cousin, William Redmond. He happened to attend one of Crowe’s photo shoots, and he quickly became a Tonnesen favorite. A handsome boy, Redmond was small for his age, which meant that he could assume the role of a much younger child yet was capable of following Tonnesen’s intricate direc­tions—when he wasn’t indulg­ing his mischievous streak.

Crowe’s modeling career ended when her family moved from Chicago, but Redmond’s flourished, and the boy ended up working at several Chicago studios over the years. He appeared in ads for Sun-Maid raisins and other national brands, and photos of him shot by Tonnesen and others served as the basis for some of the colorful illustrations that graced the calendars and posters of the day.

As an adult, Redmond served in the Illinois legislature from 1959 to 1982, including three terms as speaker of the House. He died in 1992 but left behind an oral memoir recorded ten years earlier. “One of my secretaries when I was speaker went to a garage sale here in Springfield,” he related, while chuckling, “and she saw this [calendar] picture and she wanted to know if it was me. And it was.”

As lucrative as Tonnesen’s innovative use of live models must have been, surrendering her photographs to the nation’s merchants and industrialists diluted her connection to the black-and-white images she worked so hard to produce. The commissions helped pay the bills, but they didn’t keep her in the public eye as much as her portraits and celebrated models.

Nor did another line of work that helped earn Tonnesen a small fortune. In an 1896 article entitled “Ideas for Dull Artists,” the Tribune noted that illustrators had gotten into the habit of converting photographs into “etchings, lithographs, watercolor sketches, or even elaborate oil paintings.” The photographer supplied the photo; the engraver or artist added the final touches. “A little idealizing, a little freedom of execution, and a clever handling of color, and the picture is finished,” stated the Tribune. “But the credit for what in it [that] is original and ideal is largely due to the unknown manipulator of the camera.”

That artistic anonymity never seemed to bother Tonnesen, the “clever young woman” whom the Tribune singled out as an exemplar of those unknown manipulators. Late in life she talked about her dealings with the country’s calendar companies, who desperately sought an endless assortment of images to adorn their annual offerings. “I made hundreds of them, each and every one entirely different in subject matter and arrangement,” she said. “One year I designed and sold $20,000 worth of pictures”—the equivalent of about $900,000 in today’s dollars.

Tonnesen became so adept in this line of work that she soon began producing photos designed specifically to be altered. On one occasion, for instance, she brought a pretty model into her nearly empty studio, costumed her to look like a stereotypical Indian maiden, and had her strike a number of poses. One of the images ended up with the illustrator Homer Nelson, who specialized in romanticized depictions of Native Americans. Nelson took Tonnesen’s image, added a coat of paint and an idyllic background, and voilà: The Dawn of Woman, a colorful print suitable for framing.

It’s hard to tell how Nelson came to possess Tonnesen’s image. Did he know the photographer, or did he simply buy her photo from a stock art company? We don’t have the same problem with R. Atkinson Fox, the illustrator whose work first set Lois Emerson on Tonnesen’s trail. Born in Toronto in 1860, Fox originally worked as a portrait artist before devoting himself to landscapes and the brightly hued images that adorned  posters and calendars some 100 years ago. Producing work under nearly a dozen pseudonyms, he migrated from city to city before finally ending up in Chicago late in life. He lived with his large family at a number of North Side addresses—when he died in 1935, Fox was living at 4450 North Lincoln Avenue—and for a time, he shared studio space with Tonnesen.

By then, Tonnesen had left her Michigan Avenue studio, migrated to Chicago Avenue, and finally set up shop at 2635 North Hampden Court, just south of Wrightwood Avenue. (None of the buildings that housed Tonnesen’s studios have survived.) That’s the space she shared with Fox—who complained to others about the startlingly loud ring of the telephone used by the hearing-impaired photographer—and it explains the similarities between the work produced by the two artists that first captured Emerson’s attention.

Over the years, Emerson doggedly pursued the clues she encountered in Fox’s and other illustrations—the reappearance of a particular model or a distinctive prop or article of clothing—things she was able to link back to Tonnesen’s photos. Eventually she identified several of the models in the photos, and they and their descendants provided further information and, in some cases, more photographs.

To showcase those photos and share what she knew about Tonnesen’s life, Emerson started a blog at beatricetonnesen .com, a website she created—along with Sumner Nelson, Tonnesen’s great nephew—in 2007. Coinciding with the site going live, other serendipitous discoveries occurred. After visiting the site, Marge Eid, of the historical society in Winneconne, Wisconsin (Tonnesen’s birthplace), began an online correspondence with Emerson—a few months after Eid had turned up a forgotten box stuffed with 93 Tonnesen photos. Those pictures formed the basis for a special Tonnesen exhibit at Winneconne’s Steamboat Museum last summer. Scott Cross, of the public library in Oshkosh (where Tonnesen grew up), continues to write and lecture about her, and at presstime, Margaret Denny—a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia College and the University of Illinois at Chicago—was scheduled to talk about Tonnesen at the annual conference of the College Arts Association, which met here in February. (As a contributor to 2007’s Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Denny had already acknowledged Tonnesen’s contributions to advertising.) Eighty years after Tonnesen retired, she and her forgotten photos may finally be getting the recognition they deserve.

Around 1930, the lease ran out on Tonnesen’s Hampden Court studio, and, after some 35 years, she gave up photography and left Chicago to live with her sister Clara—widowed again—in Winneconne. As more details come to light about Tonnesen’s professional career, most of her personal life remains a mystery. We know she never married, but we don’t know why. Late in life, addressing a Wisconsin women’s club, she said she knew early on that “domesticity” was not for her. “Honestly, I think she was just a career artist,” Emerson says. “Art was her love.”

As for her relationship with Clara, we know the two sisters spent much of their lives together, but on what foundation did their bond reside? The few clues we have only seem to cloud the issue. For instance, in 1905, in its “News of the Court,” the Tribune reported that a Judge Gary had awarded Clara $795 in a suit against Beatrice. Perhaps the suit was related to the money Clara had loaned her sister to start her Chicago studio, but there is no way to tell. If there was a rift, there is no evidence that it was long lasting. From Emerson’s perspective, the sisters essentially enjoyed a “long, positive relationship.”

Reunited in Winneconne, Clara and Beatrice participated together in the town’s many social activities. Clara seems to have been inclined toward theosophy, and she was active in prison reform. Beatrice served as a sales agent for the Lieber Oscillator (a hearing aid), and she painted, sculpted, and continued to invent. During her last decade in Chicago she had secured patents for a portable sewing cabinet and a high-tech vase for long-stemmed flowers. Now she came up with another innovation. Using clinkers—the incombustible residue of coal—mixed with clay, enamel, and paint, she began fashioning a line of jewelry and objets d’art she called Mars Ware. The unusual pieces were a hit, and Paramount Pictures even made a short movie about them.

Clara died in 1944. Beatrice had already begun selling off the family’s antique furniture and her china and pictures, and around 1950 she moved into the St. Mary’s Home in Oshkosh—where she turned out original earrings and brooches designed from seashells. Tonnesen died on May 12, 1958. She was 87 years old, though in a sense she will forever remain the radiant young woman gazing candidly from the photographs shot of her many decades before her death.

As for Lois Emerson, she continues to chase down photos and other details about Tonnesen, doing her best to keep the memory of this forgotten photographer alive. “I like mysteries,” says Emerson, “and this is an ongoing mystery.”

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