September 28, 2016 11:00 AM EDT

When Charlotte Brooks was first hired by Look Magazine in 1951, she got the kinds of assignments one might expect for a woman in a male-dominated industry at the time: fashion, promotions, assorted fluff. “Her tasks included the ‘sociable cheese’ series—photographing supermarket displays when a cheese manufacturing company was a major Look advertiser,” notes her Library of Congress bio.

Over the next two decades she spent as the magazine’s only female full-time staff photographer, however, Brooks managed to make her way from the grocery aisle to the center of a tumultuous time in American life. As the relative stability of the 1950s gave way to the upheaval of the 1960s, Brooks chronicled the transformation from the inside. Among her subjects were Duke Ellington on tour through the segregated south; a young, working, single mother at a time when few were visible; and the first gay couple to marry legally in the U.S.

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Brooks’ career is the subject of a new exhibit at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, opening Wednesday. Charlotte Brooks at LOOK: 1951–1971 will be on view through Dec. 18.

“Within the male-dominated world of photojournalism and commercial photography during the postwar period in the U.S., Brooks was a pioneer,” Ileana Selejan, a Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Davis, said in a statement about the show.

How did she get there? When profiled in 1945 by Popular Photography, Brooks was dubbed “Girl on Assignment.” The article explained that she had always been interested in the medium and honed her skills by working with such photographic luminaries as Gjon Mili before taking a job with the New York Times. She then worked freelance before joining Look‘s team. Brooks continued to work at Look—the main competitor of LIFE—until the magazine folded in 1971. She died in 2014.

What set her work apart was a clear grasp of what made people tick.

“Learn to anticipate human behavior,” Brooks told Popular Photography, “so that when the moment arrives for the picture you can focus, compose, adjust and shoot in a split second.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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