Born in Grafton, West Virginia, on 15 January 1864, Frances Benjamin Johnston spent her early years along the Ohio River, in Rochester, New York, and in Washington, D.C. She studied art at Notre Dame Convent in Govanston, Maryland, and in 1883 began a two-year study at the Académie Julien in Paris.

When she returned to Washington, D.C. after studying art abroad, she enrolled at the Art Student’s League, but she had lost enthusiasm for American art. Aided by a journalist friend, she began making illustrations for a newspaper and then, sensing the changing trend in illustrated journals, turned to photography because she thought it was “the more accurate medium.”