Introduction to Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952
By 1900 Frances Benjamin Johnston had made a name for herself. At the age of thirty-six, she had photographed a diverse sample of Americana— from politicians to mine workers, socialites to factory women, public institutions to humble cottages. And she was making a living. In 1899 alone she had completed a six-week commission photographing Washington, D.C. schools; served on the jury for the Second Philadelphia Salon; photographed Admiral George Dewey in Italy on his flagship the Olympia on its return from the Philippines; and ended the year with a commission photographing the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, the work for which she is most often remembered.1
The year ahead proved even more remarkable. Johnston was selected as one of two American women delegates at the International Congress of Photography held in conjunction with the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. There she spoke enthusiastically on behalf of American women photographers and displayed approximately 150 photographs solicited from more than thirty women from across the country. Johnston’s Washington, D.C. school photographs were displayed at the Exposition, promoting “new education” in America, and her Hampton photographs were featured with the American Negro Exhibit—designed to show the history, education, and progress of the African American in the United States. The American Negro Exhibit and Johnston’s work received grand prizes.2
Johnston wrote prolifically as well. Her articles appeared in such prominent publications as Demorest's Family Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Frank Leslie’s Magazines, Harper’s Weekly, and the Ladies' Home Journal. Readers of popular illustrated magazines in the 1890s could hardly miss seeing her articles or pictures.3
She was extraordinarily energetic, entrepreneurial, and ambitious—working at ease in any setting. In 1947 she gifted her prints, negatives, and correspondence to the Library of Congress, and returned in triumph for an exhibit of her work.4 Today the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress holds approximately 20,000 photographic prints and 3,700 glass and film negatives, and the Manuscript Division has a finding aid for a 17,000-item collection.5 In 1966, an album of Johnston's Hampton photographs was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, and 44 of the 159 platinum prints were featured in an exhibit and published as The Hampton Album. Lincoln Kiersten, album donor and editor of the book, called Benjamin's images “inexhaustibly revealing.”6 Nonetheless, for years Johnston, like most other female photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was a mere footnote in the history of American photography.7
Today she is remembered as one of the first women to attain prominence as a photographer and one who achieved distinction on behalf of her sex and her photography.8 Increasingly her images are the subject of critical analysis for the richness of their political and cultural meanings as well as for their artistic and creative merits.9
1 See Lincoln Kirstein, ed., The Hampton Album (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966); Laura Wexler, “Black and White in Color: American Photographs at the Turn of the Century,” Prospects 13 (1988): 341-90; Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); James Guimond, “Frances Johnston’s Hampton Album: A White Dream for Black People,” American Photography and the American Dream (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
2 Verna Posever Curtis, “Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1900: Staking the Sisterhood’s Claim in American Photography,” in Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900-1901, ed. Browyn A.E. Griffith (Giverny, France: Musée d’Art Américain Giverny, 2001). W. E. B. Du Bois said Johnston’s works were “an especially excellent series of photographs illustrating the Hampton idea of ‘teaching by doing’” (Curtis, 33).
3 Verna Posever Curtis, Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris 1900-1901, 26.
Articles by Frances B. Johnston before 1900
Demorest’s Family Magazine:
“Uncle Sam's Money,” Dec. 1889–Jan. 1890
“Story on the White House” May–June 1890
“Some Homes Under the Administration,” July–Dec. 1890
“Through the Coal Country with a Camera,” March 1892
“The Evolution of a Great Exposition,” describing the setup of the Chicago Exposition, April 1892
“Mammoth Cave by Flashlight,” June 1892
“From the Depths of a Crystallized Sea,” Feb. 1893
“The Foreign Legations at Washington,” Apr.–July 1893
“A Day at Niagara,” Aug. 1893
“Small White House Orchids,” June 1895
“The New Tenants of the White House,” Ladies' Home Journal, Oct. 1897
“Students in the Art of War,” Illustrated American, 23 June 1894
“Uncle Sam as Stamp-Maker,” Harper's Round Table, 11 June 1895
“Diplomatic Marriage,” Harper's Weekly, 7 April 1894
“Eagle’s Perch Abroad,” Harper’s Weekly, 18 May 1907
“Dobe Trophy House,” Country Life, August 1919
4 Pete Daniel and Raymond Smock, A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston 1889-1910, (New York, Harmony Books, 1974), 34.
6 As cited in Wexler, Tender Violence, p. 132.
7 See an excellent historiography of American women photographers in Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York, Abbeville Press, 1994).
8 Curtis, Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris 1900-1901, 26.
9 Wexler, “Black and White in Color;” Wexler, Tender Violence; Guimond, Frances Johnston’s Hampton Album. See also Jeanne M. Przyblyski, “American Visions at the Paris Exposition 1900: Another Look at Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Photographs,” Art Journal 57:3 (Fall 1998).
Also see Jeanne M. Przyblyski, “American Visions at the Paris Exposition 1900: Another Look at Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Photographs,” Art Journal 57:3 (Fall 1998).