Frances Benjamin Johnston with Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans, examining some of Johnston’s architectural photographs 1947. [LOC: LC-USP6-804C]
Frances B. Johnston in 1936. [LOC: LC-USZ62-47560]

Many of Johnston’s contemporary women photographers were exclusively portraitists or specialists in photographs of children, dogs, or cats. These were demanding fields, to be sure, but areas where women could work with ease without raising eyebrows. There were many other women in photography at the turn of the century such as Lillian Baynes Griffin, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Edith H. Tracey, and, of course, Gertrude Käesebier.

Lillian Griffin, who had to ask the dealer how to use her first camera, began in 1908 and became a prize-winning photographer of famous people. Jessie Tarbox Beals, a Massachusetts school teacher, began with a camera that cost her $1.75. She specialized in photo-journalism. Beals used her camera as a tool for social reform much as Jacob Riis had done, working for tenement reform and for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Many women, as well as men, who earned modest reputations with their camera in the 1890s, took up the craft as a hobby. Edith Tracey said she began photography “as an amusement” but found that she could profitably sell her work.

Johnston, however, took up photography as a business; it was no idle amusement for her. “I have not been able to lose sight of the pecuniary side,” she emphasized, “though for the sake of money or anything else I would never publish a photograph which fell below the standard I have set for myself.”

After 1910 Frances Benjamin Johnston began to drift away from photo-journalism and portrait work and entered more and more into garden and architectural photography.

From 1913 to 1917 she and a friend, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, ran a studio on Fifth Avenue in New York. They obtained a contract to photograph the New Theater in New York which led to other successes. They did work for a long list of architects, businesses, and estates, including Carrere & Hastings; McKim, Mead & White; City National Bank; the North German Lloyd Co.; and the estates of John Peirpont Morgan, John J. Astor, and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney.

By 1920 Johnston had become a sought-after lecturer on gardens, beginning another major phase of her career. She wrote in that year that she was beginning a tour from Cleveland though the Middle West into California. “My lectures appeal not only to garden clubs, but also to organizations fostering civic improvement, art and literary study, in that I endeavor to present the best sources of information on a wide range of subjects relating to garden and flowers.” By this time she had delved into color photography and was probably the first woman photographer to specialize in color processing. In 1930 she collaborated with Henry Irving Brock in Colonial Churches in Virginia.

In the 1930s she began the final phase of her career, winning a $26,000 Carnegie grant to photograph colonial southern architecture. In her late sixties at the time, she was reputed to have “the energy of a 20-year-old.”

She went about the South in a chauffeur-driven automobile locating old buildings, and it was said that she could “smell out an old colonial house five miles off the highway.” Her mission was not to photograph the prominent homes of colonial America which, she argued, had already “been photographed often and well.” Rather, she sought “the old farm houses, the mills, the log cabins of the pioneers, the country stores, the taverns and inns, in short those buildings that had to do with the everyday life of the colonists.” She did her work well, and two books resulted from this venture, The Early Architecture of North Carolina and The Early Architecture of Georgia. In 1945 she was awarded an honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects.

Johnston moved to New Orleans in 1940 and entered a life of semi-retirement. Always independent, she lived a rather lonely life in her last years, but her energy did not subside. She bought a run-down house on the “respectable” end of Bourbon Street and transformed its dilapidated courtyard into a beautiful garden with a small pool. Continuing to pursue her interests in gardening, she often went out in her old Buick to give lectures. Her active days in the darkroom were over, even though she maintained a photographic work area in an alcove off her bathroom.

Age was slowing her down. She walked with a cane, and her doctor weaned her from bourbon; so she drank cherry wine instead. Even at this stage of her life she remained staunchly indomitable. “I’ve learned not to depend on the Lord. I’ll make the changes myself.” She loved to roam the French Quarter and sit in bars and talk. Once when someone recognized her as a famous photographer, she agreed, “Yes, I’m the greatest woman photographer in the world.”

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