No longer overlooked: Frances B. Johnston, photographer who defied noble norms

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries for notable people whose deaths went unreported in the Times from 1851 onwards.

Frances B. Johnston, one of the first women in the United States to enjoy a long and fruitful career as a professional photographer, had such an indelible personality that it is hard to believe she could ever have been forgotten.

Unimpressed by obstacles of her gender and happy to shake the easily shocking ones, she demonstrated her character early with a self-portrait from 1896 entitled “The New Woman”, in which she sits in profile next to a fireplace, her dress pulled up around a petticoat ribbon to reveal. In her right hand is a cigarette, in the left a beer mug. For an even more bust-shaped self-portrait, she adopted a male person from head to toe, complete with mustache and pants.

Johnston was a storyteller and dependable drinking companion who toured the country and took photos across the social spectrum. She portrayed celebrities in the White House; reported from coal mines in West Virginia and from Mammoth Cave, Kentucky; praised the educational opportunities at two recently established black colleges; celebrated the great estates of the upper class; and helped preserve American architecture by documenting hundreds of surviving examples from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Her success was fueled by tremendous energy and confidence, the ability to take high quality pictures with bulky view cameras, and a long disregard for noble norms.

In speeches and pamphlets, she urged other women to follow her example. Her gruff and practical advice was offered in an 1897 article for the Ladies’ Home Journal entitled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera”: Carry it through endless failures, equally limitless tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for details and a genius for hard work. It also needs training, experience, some capital and a field that needs to be developed. “

Over the course of her life, photography saw a number of technological innovations that fueled her ambition. It benefited from the introduction of a reliable halftoning process in the 1890s that made photographic reproduction commercially viable for newspapers and magazines. Her pictures of women in New England shoe factories during that decade were disseminated through an early US intelligence service. Its founder, George Grantham Bain, was her agent until 1910.

She also portrayed eminences of the time, including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and the journalist Joel Chandler Harris, along with five Presidents: Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. She captured Admiral George Dewey and his crew aboard the flagship cruiser Olympia upon their return from the Battle of Manila in 1899. She happened to take the last picture of McKinley before he was assassinated in 1901, and it has been widely reproduced.

In the 1920s she turned to gardens and estates in Europe and the United States, and published her pictures in Town & Country, Vogue, and House Beautiful magazines. She and her camera were welcomed to the homes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and other Golden Age plutocrats. 1925, Edith Wharton asked Johnston to photograph her villa near Paris.

The second half of Johnston’s life was mainly devoted to documenting historical architecture in nine states of Antebellum South. With support from Carnegie Corporation grants in the 1930s, she produced around 7,500 negatives. Two books of her work have been published – “The Early Architecture of North Carolina: A Pictorial Survey” (1941) and posthumously “The Early Architecture of Georgia” (1957).

She started her life with benefits that a contemporary such as the photojournalist had Jessie Tarbox Beals had not.

Frances Benjamin Johnston was born on January 15, 1864 in Grafton, WV, and grew up in Washington to wealthy parents. Her father, Anderson Doniphan Johnston, was an accountant in the Treasury. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Benjamin Johnston, was one of the first women to become a political journalist for The Baltimore Sun. She was also a theater critic for the newspaper under the pseudonym “Ione”.

Johnston graduated from the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies before moving to Paris to study drawing and painting at the Académie Julien. After returning to Washington in 1886, she continued her education at the Art Students League to become a magazine illustrator.

The switch to photography took place in 1888 through a donation from George Eastman, a family friend: an early model of his first roll film celluloid camera. Her parents arranged for classes with Thomas Smillie, the first official photographer and curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. Through contacts he made, she traveled to Europe and got to know prominent artists of the time. She knew enough about her craft in 1894 to open a portrait studio in Washington, the only woman believed to be running one at the time.

Johnston’s fame today is largely based on the photo album she made at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University) in 1899. It was founded in 1868 to train newly liberated slaves of the South (and Native Americans after 1878). It was co-educational and resident. Johnston and an assistant spent a month detailing the school’s myriad subjects from physics to animal husbandry and teaching photography to interested students.

Booker T. Washington, a Hampton graduate, asked her to do something similar for his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskegee University). She did so in 1902, despite a near-death experience when she and a group of African American men she was out walking with at night were followed by white vigilantes. One of her fellow refugees, George Washington Carver, called her “the bravest woman I have ever seen”.

More than 100 of the Hampton photos were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exhibition in an American Negro exhibition organized by WEB Du Bois and others to highlight the social advances made by African Americans in the United States. It received a great award along with positive reviews in both the European and African American press.

At the same time, after being elected delegate to the International Photography Congress in Paris, Johnston curated a groundbreaking exhibition with 142 photographs by 28 American women photographers; it later traveled to Russia.

Alfred Goldfinch published two of her photographs in his magazine “Camera Notes” in 1898 and 1899. In the decades that followed, however, she moved so far outside of artistic orbits that she was named the Arts Impresario in 1942 Lincoln Kirstein When he came across an anonymous leather-bound portfolio of the Hampton photographs in a Washington second-hand bookshop, he had no idea who could have taken it.

He showed the pictures to John Szarkowski, the then photography director of the Museum of Modern Art, who was also amazed. After the Museum finally identified Johnston as the author, the museum made up for its astonishment by exhibiting 43 of the photographs and publishing a small catalog in 1966. It was a greatly expanded version of the Hampton album released from MoMA in 2019.

Johnston never married, but had an intense affair with Mattie Hewitt, a divorced woman and a colleague photographer, in the 1910s. Friendships and business connections were easier. One of her longest relationships was with Huntley Ruff, her African American chauffeur and assistant in the 1930s and 40s, to whom she bequeathed her big car.

Making money from her photography has always been a priority for Johnston than trying his hand at art. “Good work should get a good price, and the wise woman will appreciate her best efforts,” she advised in 1897. She saw herself as an honest craftsman. “I leave the trickery to me Margaret Bourke-White and surrealism too Salvador Dalí“, She told an interviewer in 1947.

Johnston died on May 16, 1952 in New Orleans in a town house on Bourbon Street she called “Arkady.” She was 88 years old. More than 20,000 of her photographs as well as 3,700 glass and film negatives are in the Library of Congress today. She has never had a comprehensive museum retrospective.

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