Johnston, Frances Benjamin (1864–1952)

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Johnston, Frances Benjamin (1864–1952)

American photographer who specialized in documentaries, portraits, and architectural and garden photographs. Born Frances Benjamin Johnston on January 15, 1864, in Grafton, West Virginia; died on May 16, 1952, in New Orleans, Louisiana; only child of Anderson Dolophon Johnston (a bookkeeper at the Treasury Department) and Frances Antoinette (Benjamin) Johnston; graduated from Notre Dame Convent, Govanston,Maryland, in 1883; studied drawing and painting at the Julien Academy, Paris, France, 1884–85; studied at the Art Students League, Washington, D.C.; studied photography with Thomas William Smillie, director of the Division of Photography at the Smithsonian Institution; never married; no children.

One of America's earliest documentary photographers, Frances Johnston was born in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1864, but grew up in Rochester, New York, then Washington, D.C., where her father was head bookkeeper at the Treasury Department. Her mother was distantly related to Frances Folsom Cleveland , which may have accounted for Johnston's later access to the White House. Johnston originally planned to become an artist, and, after graduating from Notre Dame Convent in 1883, she went to Paris to study drawing and painting at the Julien Academy. She returned to Washington in 1885, continuing her studies as a member of the Art Students League. Around that time, she decided to go into journalism. Taking a job with a New York magazine, she illustrated her articles with her own drawings until 1887, when she obtained her first camera. After a brief unsatisfactory apprenticeship with a commercial photographer, she began studying with Thomas William Smillie, who was then director of the Division of Photography at the Smithsonian Institution.

Johnston's first published photographs appeared in Demorest's Family Magazine in 1889; they accompanied an article she wrote on the U.S. Mint. She set up her studio in the rose garden behind her father's Washington house, where she produced portraits in addition to her assignments from periodicals and the daily press. During the 1890s, Johnston began photographing the White House, publishing her early interior shots in The White House (1893). She continued photographing the executive mansion and celebrities from Washington's political and social circles for the next 15 years, documenting five administrations and earning the title of "Photographer of the American Court." Johnston also created portraits of other distinguished Americans, including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Jane Cowl , and Susan B. Anthony .

Once established in her career, Johnston became a champion of women in photography. In 1897, she published an article in the Ladies' Home Journal, "What a Woman Can Do with a Camera," urging women to consider photography as a career choice. Later, in 1900, she organized an important exhibition of 142 prints by 26 American women photographers which was presented at the same time as the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The exhibition then traveled to St. Petersburg and Moscow, returning for public exhibition at the Photo Club of Paris in January 1901. Johnston subsequently wrote a series of articles on the exhibition's women photographers for the Ladies' Home Journal (1901–02).

Much of Johnston's documentary work focused on industry and education, areas of particular interest to the Progressive reformers of her time, many of whom, like her friend Jacob Riis, were personal acquaintances. In 1891, in conjunction with Demorest's, she visited the Kohinoor Mines at Shenandoah City, Pennsylvania, to study the effects of industrialization on the workers. She also photographed an ore-mining operation on Lake Superior and a cigar-box and shoe factory in Massachusetts.

In 1900, Johnston won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition with a series of photographs of the Washington, D.C., school system and the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school founded during Reconstruction to prepare African-Americans, as well as Native Americans, for vocational jobs. The "Hampton" series, commissioned for marketing purposes, is particularly indicative of Johnston's documentary style and her skill at showing a particular point of view, in this case, the social and economic advantages of industrial education. Her images depicting the educational activities of the Institute, often juxtaposed with photographs of the poor black families of the Virginia countryside, made a vivid statement about the advantages of a Hampton education. (In 1966, the Museum of Modern Art would mount an exhibit of a group of photographs from the Hampton Institute series.) Johnston also produced photographs of the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian School (1900), and the Tuskegee Institute (1902 and 1908), founded by Booker T. Washington, who had actually been educated at Hampton. At Tuskegee, Johnston's goal was to convey the idea that blacks could build and administrate an institution of their own.

Through her documentary and portrait work of the 1890s, Johnston joined the vanguard of artistic photographers of the time. She was chosen, along with her contemporary Gertrude Käsebier , to sit on the jury for the Philadelphia Photographic Society exhibit of 1899, the first year an all-photographer jury judged a major photographic exhibition. According to Jerald C. Maddox of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress,

"this was a revolutionary step that not only suggested that photographers might be aesthetically sensitive, but also implied that in this respect they might be the equals of artists in the traditional media." In 1904, Johnston became an associate member of the Photo-Secession, a group organized by Alfred Stieglitz to promote photography as a fine art.

Little is known about Johnston's personal life and relationships; her papers (17,000 pieces of correspondence held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress) reveal little outside of business details or notes concerning her work. Some of her papers suggest that she was often so absorbed in taking pictures that she let business matters slip. She sometimes failed to open her bills and occasionally did not see her assignments through to the end, particularly if another interesting project came up. In a letter dated 1899, her agent expressed some frustration: "You have caused me serious losses by not delivering promptly prints of pictures which I knew had been taken," he wrote.

Devoted to her career, Johnston never married. She had a wide circle of friends, including many actors, poets, and artists from the bohemian set in Washington, who referred to themselves as "The Push." They frequently gathered in her studio for parties, or just good talk and wine. In their biography A Talent for Detail, Pete Daniel and Raymond Smock point out that during the 1890s, Johnston really lived two lives, moving between the strict social constraints of official Washington and the freer, less confined world of her friends. That she did so with ease is testimony to an engaging personality that apparently served her well in both business and social encounters. Another of Johnston's attributes may have been her sense of humor, which is evident in a widely circulated self-portrait dated around 1896, in which she expresses her disdain of Victorian formality. Perched on a box in front of her studio fireplace, Johnston is seen in profile, one leg crossed over the other revealing a ruffled petticoat and a long expanse of stocking, a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other.

Around 1910, Johnston began to move away from photojournalism into garden and architectural photography. From 1913 to 1917, she had a studio in New York with her friend Mattie Edward Hewitt. Their first contract to photograph the New Theater in New York led to commissions from architects, businesses, and estates, including those of J. Pierpont Morgan and John Jacob Astor IV. By 1920, Johnston was also in demand as a lecturer on gardens, and that year began an ambitious speaking tour from Cleveland through the Midwest into California.

The final phase of Johnston's career began in the 1930s, when she received back-to-back Carnegie grants to photograph Southern architecture. Her goal was not to photograph prominent buildings and homes but to seek out "the old farm houses, the mills, the log cabins of the pioneers, the country stores, the taverns and inns, in short those building that had to do with the everyday life of the colonists." The project netted some 7,000 negatives, some of which were published in two books: The Early Architecture of North Carolina and The Early Architecture of Georgia.

In 1940, Johnston retired to New Orleans, purchasing a house on Bourbon Street and transforming its rundown courtyard into an attractive garden. Only slightly slowed by age, she still lectured occasionally and maintained a small darkroom in an alcove off her bathroom. As a concession to her doctors, she switched from bourbon to cherry wine, which she sipped in establishments along the French Quarter. In 1947, she donated her prints, negatives, and correspondence to the Library of Congress, which held an exhibit of her work. The photographer died on March 16, 1952, at the age of 88.

Although Johnston was a pioneer in photo-journalism, and one of only a handful of women in her era to take up photography as a business, she is not credited with any technical or artistic innovations. Daniel and Smock point out that once Johnston found a technique that worked, she tended to stick with it. "Perhaps her genius was in doing the ordinary exceptionally well," they conclude. Whatever the scope of her talent, Johnston maintained consistently high standards as a professional and provided a rich and lasting visual history of the times in which she lived.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Daniel, Pete, and Raymond Smock. A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston 1889–1910. NY: Harmony Books, 1974.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Johnston, Frances Benjamin (1864–1952)

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