Frances Benjamin Johnston


Tanvi Dhulia takes a look at the remarkable life of Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of the most prolific and experimental photographers of her time.

New Woman, (a self-portrait), 1896.

Few people can claim to have lived a life as full and lively as Frances Benjamin Johnston. She was one of the first female press photographers in the United States, a significant contributor in the documentation efforts of architecture in the American south, and the beating heart of every party she attended.

An Outgoing Personality
During her prolific career, she made a name for herself as a skilled portraitist for whom, capturing the essence of one’s personality was paramount to creating a good and honest photograph of a person. “Avoid emphasising the peculiarities of a face,” she once explained, “either by lighting or pose: look for curves rather than angles or straight lines, and try to make the interest in the picture center on what is most effective in your sitter.” Her approach found favour amongst the Washington elite, and notable personalities like Mark Twain and Susan B Anthony.

Not one to be pigeonholed, Johnston spent a significant part of her career making delicately crafted lantern slides of gardens, both modest and exquisite.

She also established herself as a much sought after architectural photographer, and in 1945 was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects in recognition of her contribution to the field.

View of the crew’s quarters, U.S.S. Olympia, 1899

Raised in what appears to have been an egalitarian home, she frequently spoke about having spent her girlhood in an environment “which bounded the very best of the social, literary and artistic life of the National Capital.” This is unsurprising as her mother was one of the leading political journalists of her time. Throughout her career, ‘Fannie’, as she liked to call herself, was self-sufficient and unyielding in nature. So unwavering was her determination, that in the 1930s she moved the Williamsburg governing board to fell some trees obstructing a shot she wanted of the Bruton Church in Virginia. And long before that, in 1899, when she got wind that the U.S.S. Olympia was returning from its victory after the Spanish–American War, Johnston promptly made arrangements to document the Admiral and the crew. Once onboard, she made intimate portraits of the men leading their daily lives, of sailors tattooing each other, waltzing on the deck, or relaxing in their quarters.

Her delightfully playful (and fake) enlistment record indicates that she was quite at ease with the men. In it, she entered her trade as ‘snapshots’, and awarded herself the highest marks in all categories except ‘sobriety.’

Hampton Institute, current events class, 1899.

Early Years
Although the 1890s were not entirely welcoming to women in a lot of professions, in all her notes and letters, Johnston seemed undeterred by the threat of gender bias. The field of photography was still in its infancy, and was seeing remarkable advancements in technology that allowed it to become more accessible. According to A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum, by 1890, the total cost of a basic camera setup, along with a lens, plates, chemicals and a tripod, was equivalent to two weeks’ wages of the average female factory worker.

Johnston, who had studied art at the Académie Julian from 1883 to 1885, had returned to Washington at the age of 21. From what is known about the Académie during that time, the course wasn’t quite structured, and art theory wasn’t a significant part of it. However, it certainly cultivated in her an appreciation for geometric forms, human gestures, and careful compositions. Her understanding of these is visible in her pictures from early on.

A Keen Eye
Throughout her adult life, Johnston skillfully (and sometimes unabashedly) promoted herself to maintain a firm footing in the industry. She had numerous stories in magazines under her name, and a steady flow of customers at her V Street studio in the capital, which by 1895 became a favourite spot for parties. In April of the same year, The Washington Post reported that she was the only woman photographer operating in the city. Her early success as a commercial photographer drew the ire of Alfred Stieglitz, to whom it seemed that she had compromised herself as an artist by attempting to create work that was meant to please clients. One of his disciples, Joseph Keiley, believed her art was “retarded by . . . an onerous professional life.”

Perhaps in an attempt to please Stieglitz and his ilk, Johnston dabbled in the pictorialist form herself. She even became a member of his Photo-Secession in 1904. However, none of her artistically posed images seemed to encompass the kind of insight as her commissioned portraits. In the latter, all the elements in a frame worked cohesively to represent a complete personality. Whether it be a characteristic smile and twinkle of the eye, or a grim figure cloaked in stoicism, surrounded by objects indicative of their passions, she understood the value of human connection and individual identity.

Telling Stories
As the years progressed, she grew more particular about the way her frames were composed. This is especially visible in her pictures of the staff at the Tuskegee Institute, from 1902. She had become more conservative with negative space, cropping closer into the figure by often choosing to exclude their hands, and had gotten better at posing her subjects.

Booker T. Washington, a prominent leader in the African American community, extended an invitation for her to photograph the school and its people in Alabama. He hoped that the resulting images could help with donation efforts for the Institute, aimed to prepare African American students to start schools in their own communities. Johnston agreed and even offered to train students in photography and darkroom practices while she was there.

Students making and upholstering barrel furniture, 1902.

The pictures she made of students at work were composed like paintings. Like her previous projects of this nature, they appear staged, yet they are replete with information and quiet commentary. Whether intentional or not, she repeatedly seems to raise questions about race inequalities through pictures of young girls learning how to braid hair on white mannequins, or some where they are made to dress in slave-era garb, while constructing a mattress. It brings to light the glaring issue of how, for numerous students at the institute, getting ‘an education’ meant learning how to serve white Americans.

This was a period in the U.S. when segregation of whites and blacks was furiously defended by a large section of the population, especially in the south. A brush with a baying lynch mob, where she too was shot at, didn’t deter Johnston from carrying on with the assignment. George Washington Carver, a professor who had helped her escape the situation, described her as “the pluckiest woman I ever saw.”

A Memorable Character
This impression of the photographer was shared by most who met her. She had cultivated for herself a reputation of a resilient and eccentric lady bachelor (a term she preferred over ‘spinster’). In an era where it was uncommon for a woman to remain unmarried and independent, Johnston carried on in casual rebellion. She actively sought out like-minded company, and even moved her business to New York in 1909, where she lived with her partner, Mattie Hewitt.

The Greenwich Village, where they resided, was a hub for free thinkers of all kinds, especially in the early decades of the 1900s. During her time there, Johnston began to actively diversify her portfolio. By 1913, she and Hewitt were known to specialise in architectural photography. When their relationship fell apart in 1917, she left New York, and for several years completely immersed herself in her work.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (right) with two unidentified friends who are cross-dressed.

She was exceptionally savvy when it came to understanding what people wanted, and which genres of the medium would be fruitful to pursue. By now it had been several years since her pictures had featured a person, almost as though she had begun to veer towards a solitary existence. From the very beginning, Johnston was known to put forth her vision for an image, even if it meant removing elements that were otherwise a constant presence in the scene.

Her lantern slides were prepared with the kind of intricacy that exceeded expectations at the time. Well before colour photography was commonplace, Johnston and her colorists delivered some fascinating views of gardens belonging to both the American elite and the middle-class. Between 1895 and 1935, she had produced more than 1130 glass-lantern slides. Nancy Burncoat of the Sunday Telegram called her “an interpreter of gardens.” With this body of work too, people were in awe of how she could bring out the individuality of each space.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were documenting how the economic crash impacted people, Johnston focused her attention on creating a visual record of vanishing architecture in the south. She managed to get grants from the Carnegie Corporation to fund this mission. Today, 7500 negatives from the time constitute a significant archive in numerous libraries and universities across the U.S.

In 1938, when Carnegie sent her to New Orleans, a local journalist reported on the now 74-year old photographer’s process in fascinating detail. He described how she made meticulous maps of the areas she had to visit, and which hour the lighting would be ideal. She did a thorough examination of all the houses and intersections, and would often wait for hours in her car for suitable conditions to photograph in. This willingness to do a great deal of legwork, and her ability to depict a building in a manner that could be appreciated by historians and architects, alike made her a popular choice for leading architects.

It was only during World War II that Johnston had to give up field work, when photographic materials and gas for her car became scarce. And in her eighties, after years of moving from place-to-place, based on work requirements, she finally chose to settle down in New Orleans.

C. Ford Peattros, from the Library of Congress described people’s recollection of her “as if a potentate had come through.” This, perhaps, is the most apt description of a person who was a force to reckon with.

All images in this story have been made by Frances Benjamin Johnston, and sourced from The Library of Congress.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: black and white, photojournalist, photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, washington D.C.