Frances Benjamin Johnston: Pioneering Photography

Black and white historical photograph of Frances Benjamin Johnston sitting at a writing desk in an ornately decorated room. She appears focused on her work, with pen in hand and papers in front of her. The room is filled with an eclectic mix of objects, including a spinning wheel, ornamental plates on the wall, a fireplace with a lit fire, and a daybed draped with patterned textiles. The setting reflects a late 19th or early 20th-century interior.
Frances Benjamin Johnston in her studio, 1900

“It is wrong to regard photography as purely mechanical. Mechanical it is, up to a certain point, but beyond that there is great scope for individual and artistic expression.” – Frances Benjamin Johnston

Early Years

Frances was born on January 15, 1864, in Grafton, West Virginia. She was the only surviving child of Frances Antoinette Benjamin and Anderson Doniphan Johnston. Her father was an assistant bookkeeper in the U.S. Treasury Department for decades, while her mother was a groundbreaking journalist.

Due to her father’s work, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Frances would grow up. She would say, “Fortunately, I had spent my girlhood in a family circle which bounded the very best of the social, literary and artistic life of the National Capital.” (Berch). But it was due to her mother that Frances went to great schools, learning subjects that ranged from bookkeeping to ancient history. Her finals academic years were spent in Paris at the Académie Julian, where she studied drawing and painting.

Career

“Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston is the only lady in the business of photography in the city, and in her skillful hands it has become an art that rivals the geniuses of the old world.”The Washington Times, April 21, 1895 

After returning from her studies in Paris in the late 1880s, Frances decided to establish herself in photography. Recognizing the medium’s potential as an art form and a means of documentation, she opened a photography studio in Washington, D.C. This was a bold move, especially for a woman of her time. Still, Frances was determined to carve a niche for herself.

France’s studio quickly gained recognition in the elite circles of Washington. Her unique blend of artistic sensibility and technical prowess made her a sought-after photographer. Commissions came in to photograph many prominent people, including several U.S. presidents like Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as their families.

But famous people were only a part of her work. Frances embarked on projects that showcased social issues. One of her most notable endeavors was documenting students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. This series provided a candid look at the lives of black and Native American students. The photographs from this series were exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition and received widespread acclaim for their poignant portrayal of education as a tool for social upliftment.

As the 20th century dawned, Frances’ ove for history and architecture converged, adding another focus, architectural photography. She traveled throughout the United States, capturing images of historic buildings, gardens, and landscapes. Her meticulous documentation was pivotal in the architectural preservation movement, capturing photographs of heritage at risk of being lost to time.

Along with her, Frances was a staunch advocate for women throughout her career, particularly in photography. She believed the medium offered women a unique opportunity to express themselves and make a mark in a predominantly male-dominated profession. To further this cause, she delivered lectures, wrote articles, and organized exhibitions highlighting female photographers’ achievements while also mentoring many young women, providing them guidance and support as they embarked on their photographic journeys.

Frances passed away on May 16, 1952.

Notes

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another female pioneer, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.

Sources

  • Berch, Bettina. The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952. United Kingdom, University Press of Virginia, 2000.
  • “Frances Benjamin Johnston.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Benjamin_Johnston
  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, full-length portrait, standing, facing left. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/98516476/>.
  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Female students playing basketball, Western High School, Washington, D.C. [?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2001699137/>.
  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, seated on steps, facing front, with staff. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004671560/>.
  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Self-portrait of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston in her studio atV Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002711153/>.
  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Students at Work on a House Built Largely by Them. [or 1900] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/00652583/>.
  • The Washington times., April 21, 1895, Page 9, Image 9, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062244/1895-04-21/ed-1/seq-9/