A Talent for Detail:

The Photography of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1889–1910

by Pete Daniel and Raymond Smock

Frances Benjamin Johnston selling tintypes at a Virginia country fair, May 1903. [LOC: LC-J713-4931]


In 1897 Frances Benjamin Johnston wrote an article for the Ladies Home Journal entitled “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” advising women how to become photographers. Probably revealing her self-concept more than offering advice, she stated, “The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work.” Johnston personified all these qualities, but “a talent for detail” became her trademark.

Johnston’s sharp eye often transformed photographs into symbolic documents. Many of her group poses can actually be cropped into a number of perfectly composed smaller studies.

Students Boarding Trolley In 1899, Johnston was commissioned to photograph Washington, D.C. public schools to showcase American “new education” at the Universal Exposition to be held in Paris in 1900. Johnston spent six intensive weeks working with the principals of elementary and high schools throughout the District, schools then considered among the “best in the country” (Curtis, Ambassadors of Progress, 31). Using this photo, Daniel and Smock extracted a smaller image as an example of Benjamin’s “genius for detail,” noting her use of “trolley windows to frame a series of miniature portraits” (Daniel and Smock, 89). [LOC: LC-USZ62-14680]
Miniature portraits. [LOC: LC-USZ62-14680]
Washington, D.C. school series. Class of sixth division at a Library of Congress exhibition, Washington, D.C. [LOC: LC-USZ62-4552]
Another close-up example used by Daniel and Smock shows Johnston’s attention to detail. [LOC: LC-USZ62-4552]

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