Born in Bethany, Nebraska on 30 September 1893, Ruth Alexander Nichols navigated her studies at Oberlin College, a prolonged engagement, and a first marriage ending prematurely with her husband’s death to craft an eminently successful career as a photographer. Her career was marked not only by her success but by innovations that led magazine publishers to demand her work – in particular, her use of “Cabro” prints and ordinary children and babies set in natural poses were revolutionary. Her work was almost entirely for commercial use, beginning with her first job writing and photographing college publicity brochures in 1919 and resulting in her establishment of a company dedicated to taking photographs of babies, parents, and children.
The daughter of Benjamin Alexander and Ida May Smith, Ruth Alexander Nichols displayed easily interest in writing and photography. Her first photographic efforts focused on the natural world, and she developed a skill for catching small wild animals on film without disturbing them. This skill foretold the career she was to build later in life, in which her patience and attention to natural lighting and details was translated onto new subjects – babies. Ruth Alexander Nichols ultimately became known as “the baby photographer,” who would seek out models by marching up to new mothers in supermarket aisles.
Her career was not only the product of talent and interest, though, but in fact arose from necessity. After moving to Oberlin in 1911 and attending college there, matriculating in 1915, Ruth Alexander Nichols found herself alone with a fiancé away at war. Herman Nichols, a fellow graduate of Oberlin, serves as a member of the Armed Services in World War I. While he was away, Ruth Nichols attempted to pursue domestic life, teaching in a public school in Hiawatha, Kansas from 1916-17.This soon grew painfully boring for her, though, and she sought other employment. She found a far more interesting pursuit in a job with a publicity agency, which employed her to photograph and write brochures for college campuses. This gave her the opportunity to travel as well as use her technical skills.
In 1920, she and Herman Nichols were at last married, and they settled in Brooklyn, NY to raise a family. Herman Nichols began work as an attorney, and Ruth gave birth to her first daughter, Jane Ellis Nichols, in 1922. Sadly, the marriage and family were not to last long: Herman Nichols died in 1924, just prior to the birth of their second daughter, Anne Townsend Nichols. Left alone, Ruth Alexander Nichols was forced to rely upon her skills and experience to support her family and earn an income – not an ordinary task for a woman of the 1920s. When she offered to sell candid, naturally-posed and lit photographs of her own daughters to one publishing house, it led to increasing interest among other magazine publishers. By 1925, more and more publishers, including those at Women’s Home Companion and Good Housekeeping, were buying and requesting photographs. As her business and reputation as a photographer for magazines grew, she added to her earnings by taking personal portraits as well.
Her career took another large step nearly five years later, when advertising companies began to employ her. This led to accounts with Johnson and Johnson and Clapps Baby Food, among others. A characteristic style had emerged in her photographs that made them instantly recognizable: she chose to photograph babies and children in the midst of their activities, necessitating the use of ordinary children as models, rather than those who had already been trained to smile at the camera. She used a great deal of ambient lighting and focused directly on the subject’s face, making for an attention-grabbing look. Finally, she worked with the technique of “Cabro” printing, a color-printing technique that required a long process of development and resulted in incredibly detailed prints. This technique was too expensive and time-consuming to be used frequently, and it was eventually abandoned by the era’s photographers. It did, however, produce very high quality photographs unlike any other printing process.
Her daughters were a valuable resource to Nichols; without her candid portraits of them in infancy, she might never have broken into professional photography. Their role in her career did not end there, though. Jane Ellis and Anne Townsend were both pressed into service as photographic assistants once they had grown too old to be used as subjects. Eventually, both daughters attended Oberlin College – Jane from 1939-41, and Anne a graduate in the class of 1947. By 1933, before they left home, Ruth Alexander Nichols had set up her own indoor studio in Westfield, New Jersey and employed two other photographers, Elizabeth and Oscar Bro, to help her with her business. With this expanded business, Nichols continues to receive commissions for photographs, published illustrated children’s books, and produced photographs for use in both magazine features and advertising campaigns.
In 1935, Nichols married again. Her husband’s name was Brewster Sperry Beach, and the two has maintained correspondence during his military service in World War II prior to their marriage. Brewster Beach worked in journalism and public relations, and Nichols herself continued to work prolifically throughout the 1950s. Nichols retired from professional photography around 1960, and died in Summit, New Jersey on 22 April 1970.