Frances Benjamin Johnston

views updated

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Once called America's "court photographer" by Life magazine, Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) became famous doing both portraiture and documentary photography. Fortunate to know many of the rich and famous of her time, Johnston produced a body of work that serves as an important historical document. A staunch feminist and independent thinker, she campaigned to promote greater recognition of women photographers in the United States. The stark documentary style she brought to her most famous photographs would greatly influence the emerging art of photography.

Early Life and Career

An only child, Francis Benjamin Johnston was born in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1864 to affluent parents. She was raised in Washington, D.C. where her parents moved soon after she was born. In the nation's capitol, her parents were active in the high-ranking political and social circles, and their connections, particularly her mother's, would greatly benefit Johnston's education and subsequent career as a photographer. Also, Johnston drew a great deal of inspiration from the independent female role models in her family: her free-willed Aunt Nin and her mother, who worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Johnston graduated from the Notre Dame Academy near Baltimore in 1884, where she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. Her parents' connections to the Washington elite enabled her to study art in France, at the prestigious Academie Julien in Paris. She was one of the first women ever to attend the school. In 1885, she returned to Washington at age 21, planning to make a living as an artist. For awhile, she drew illustrations for magazines and sometimes wrote columns. But she soon became more interested in photography because she felt it resulted in more accurate depictions than painting or drawing. Again, her mother's connections served her well, as she soon began studying photography under Thomas Smillie at the Smithsonian Institution. Smillie taught the aspiring photographer how to use a camera and work inside a dark room.

It was not long before Johnston, who received her first camera from family friend George Eastman, began establishing a name for herself as a professional photographer. As her reputation developed, she also became an advocate of women's involvement in photography, which was then a field that was dominated by men like the famous Civil War pictorial chronicler Mathew Brady. She was the first female member of the Capitol Camera Club. At the time, photography, or "pictorialism," as it was called, was a relatively new field, and its application was mainly for journalistic purposes and not as an art form. As her skills developed, Johnston would incorporate both journalistic and artistic elements into her work, which would result in a distinctive style that greatly influenced the field and made her famous.

Her mother's own journalistic activities especially benefited Johnston early in her career. Working as a newspaper reporter, her mother wrote about congressional activities as well as Washington inside information, and she knew all of the important people in the nation's capital. She was also related to President Grover Cleveland's wife. This helped open the doors of the White House for Johnston. From the 1880s and into the 1910s, she would take pictures during the administrations of Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This resulted in an outstanding and historically invaluable pictorial document that depicted the members of the various first families, as well as White House staff members and visitors.

Independent Photographer and Woman

In 1889, not long after she first gained entrance into the White House, Johnston opened a studio behind her father's house. She soon developed a reputation both as a smart businesswoman and a talented photographer. Not only was she a founding member of the Business Women's Club, but her own photographs decorated the club's walls. She also developed a reputation as a free-thinking and strong-willed woman. Her independence and bohemian character was well characterized by her famous self-portrait that showed her pulling up her skirt and striking a rather manly pose while drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. In this way, she helped symbolize the spirit of the "new woman" that was emerging during this period in the country's history. The picture was designed to shock, as it flaunted traditional values. In fact, with that single pose, Johnston managed to purposefully target many of the taboos about women's role in American society. Her aggressively feminist stance, combined with her independent nature, sometimes resulted in work that generated controversy. When she took a nude photograph of a social debutante, the young girl's father filed a lawsuit against Johnston.

With her reputation as a hard-working professional established, Johnston became a successful photojournalist and took pictures as well as wrote for many popular publications. In 1897, she published an article in The Ladies Home Journal, "What A Woman Can Do With A Camera," that outlined her thoughts on why she believed woman were particularly suited to photography. She also explained the training involved and how to operate a studio. Working as a freelance photographer during this period, she photographed a wide variety of people, including the famous and powerful, influential woman, and common laborers. Besides the nation's presidents she photographed President Theodore Roosevelt's high-spirited daughter Alice Roosevelt, noted feminist Susan B. Anthony, women workers in New England textile mills, iron workers, and coal miners. It is also surmised that she helped establish the tradition of school pictures for students. Once, while on assignment photographing students at a school in Washington, D.C., she was told there was no money to pay her, so she decided to offer the pictures for sale to the students' parents.

The Hampton Institute Project

In 1899, when she was 37 years old and at the height of her skills, Johnston produced a collection of photographs that would rank among her most famous and best works. By this time, her talent and ambition would direct her into taking on larger projects. That year, the Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Virginia, a vocational school founded to train ex-slaves, hired her to take pictures at the school that would be included in an exhibition about contemporary African American life.

The project demonstrated the best qualities of her work: her strong sense of pictorial composition coupled with her skillful arrangement of human subjects. Individual photographs, which depicted Hampton students in classrooms and vocational surroundings, demonstrated remarkable photographic clarity. Some were stark and intense, as Johnston played with black and white shading to a powerful effect that underscored the separation that existed between blacks and whites in American society.

Many of the pictures were presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 as part of the "American Negro" exhibit (organized by prominent black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington) and at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.

The Hampton photographs alone would have been enough to secure Johnston's status of one of America's greatest photographers. But she had other great works ahead of her. Like the images in the Hampton collection, the other photographs that Johnston produced at this point in her career provide a rich pictorial account of the United States, as her work preserved images of settings and famous people that defined the essence of a particular period of the nation's history.

The same year she took the Hampton photographs, she took pictures aboard Admiral Dewey's battleship, the U.S.S. Olympia, when it was stationed in the Manila Bay. Like the Hampton project, this assignment provided an extensive pictorial document, as it captured life on board the ship and showed the famous admiral on the deck. It also generated a great deal of publicity and it added to her stature. This period also included her famous photographic portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain. At the Roosevelt White House, she took pictures of the president's children playing with their pet pony as well as the famous 1902 photo of Alice Roosevelt, which gained acclaim for perfectly capturing the essence of the president's daughter's adventurous spirit. Her famous 1906 portrait of Mark Twain has become part of America's iconography.

As her stature as a photographer grew, so did her reputation as a one of the 19th Century "liberated" women: an unmarried American female who could support herself with her own career and was strongly conscious of gender issues. Continuing to advocate on behalf of women photographers, Johnston, in 1900, organized an exhibit of women photographers for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the same year when her Hampton photographs were exhibited. The exhibit included 148 works. The women's exhibit was presented at the Third International Photographic Congress, which was held in conjunction with the Paris exposition. Johnston received both publicity and professional recognition for her efforts.

McKinley Assassinated

Johnston's fame grew to even greater proportions in 1901 when fate brought her within intimate proximity of one of the tragedies of American history. She traveled to Buffalo to photograph a major exhibition, which was taking place in early September. Her visit coincided with that of President William McKinley, who was also attending the event, so she could take pictures of him as well. As it turned out, she would take the last picture of McKinley alive, only minutes before he was killed by an assassin's bullet.

After the assassination, Johnston made and sold postcard-sized copies of this image of McKinley speaking at the Exposition grounds the day before he was shot. It became a hugely popular seller.

Later Career

Even as she approached and then surpassed her 50s, Johnston really never slowed down in her pursuit of new projects and new subject matter. She even actively engaged in acquiring new knowledge about her profession. In 1905, Johnston, her mother, and her aunt became close friends with the Lumiere brothers in France. They taught Johnston the theory and practice of their new photographic process. By 1912, she was making "color photo-transparencies." In 1906, she took only a large project, similar in scope to the Hampton project, when she photographed the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

In 1910, her career direction took a significant shift when she began specializing in architectural photography. Instead of doing portraiture and journalistic pieces, Johnston now photographed striking examples of architecture as well as the homes and gardens of rich and famous people. During the period, she lived with Mattie Hewitt. The two woman shared a profession as well as a relationship for about eight years. They went their separate ways in 1917.

Johnston moved south in July of 1927 when, during a car tour of the eastern United States, she decided to settle in Virginia. Several years later, during the Great Depression, and funded by a grant from the Carnegie Institute, she again took to the road and traveled throughout the country taking photographs.

Johnston's most significant project during her architectural phase involved photographing still-standing pre-Civil War, or antebellum, mansions and early buildings throughout nine southern states. She was again funded by the Carnegie Institute. Johnston's purpose was to capture the essence and preserve a record of early architecture indigenous to the south before the buildings were lost forever.

Later Life

She moved permanently to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1945, where she enjoyed being part of the bohemian culture. She bought a home on that city's famous Bourbon Street, where she continued her architectural photography and socialized with an eccentric, artistic crowd that included fellow photographer Joseph Whitesell.

Johnston died on March 16, 1952, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Before her death, she once stated that she was happy that she never did "marry for money." In fact, a liberated women until the day she died, Johnston never married at all. After her death, her estate donated a great deal of her photographs to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.


Berch, Bettina, The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952, University of Virginia Press, 2000.


"Frances Benjamin Johnston," Pan American Exposition Buffalo 1901, (March 15, 2003).

"Frances Benjamin Johnston," Robert Leggat's History of Photography, (March 15, 2003).

"Frances Benjamin Johnston," Women Photographers: UCR California Museum of Photography, (March 15, 2003).

Rothstein, Sarah, "Making a Social Contribution: The Story of Francis Benjamin Johnston," Women in Photography, (March 15, 2003).

"Stairway of Treasurer's Residence: Students at Work. Hampton Institute," : The Collection: Frances Benjamin Johnston, (March 15, 2003).

Tune, Howie, "Johnston Made her Mark in Photography," Reno Gazette-Journal, (March 15, 2003). □

About this article

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Updated About content Print Article