Overlooked No More: Frances B. Johnston, photographer who defied distinguished standards

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

Frances B. Johnston, one of the first women in the United States to lead a long and successful career as a professional photographer, evidently had such an indelible personality that it’s hard to believe she could have been forgotten.

Without being intimidated by obstacles encountered by others of her gender and happy to shake up those easily shocked, she demonstrated her character early on with an 1896 self-portrait titled “The New Woman”, in which she is seated. profile next to a fireplace, her dress pulled up to reveal a petticoat ribbon. In his right hand is a cigarette, in his left hand a mug of beer. For an even more sustained self-portrait, she assumed a male figure from head to toe, with mustache and pants.

Johnston was a reliable storyteller and drinking companion who traveled the country taking photographs across the social spectrum. She has portrayed celebrities in the White House; reported coal mines in West Virginia and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; touted educational opportunities at two recently founded black colleges; celebrated the great estates of the upper classes; and furthered the cause of American architectural preservation by documenting hundreds of surviving examples from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

His success has been fueled by prodigious energy and self-confidence, an ability to shoot highly skilled images with bulky view cameras, and a mind-boggling disregard for distinguished standards.

In speeches and in printed matter, she called on other women to follow her example. Her blunt and practical advice was offered in an 1897 article for the Ladies’ Home Journal titled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera”: “The woman who makes photography profitable must have common sense in terms of personal qualities. , unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a keen eye, a knack for detail and a genius for hard work. In addition, it needs training, experience, capital and land to exploit.

During his lifetime, photography underwent a series of technological innovations which encouraged his ambition. It benefited from the introduction in the 1890s of a reliable halftone process, which made photographic reproduction commercially viable for newspapers and magazines. His images of women in New England shoe factories during that decade were broadcast on a US premier news service. Its founder, George Grantham Bain, was in fact its agent until 1910.

She also portrayed prominent figures of the time, including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, and journalist Joel Chandler Harris, as well as 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 after returning from the Battle of Manila in 1899. She incidentally took the last photograph of McKinley before his assassination in 1901, and it has been widely reproduced.

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

Much of Johnston’s life was spent in the second half of documenting historic architecture in nine prewar southern states. Supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation in the 1930s, it produced some 7,500 negatives. Two books of his works 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 perks that a contemporary like, say, photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals didn’t have.

Frances Benjamin Johnston was born January 15, 1864 in Grafton, WV, and raised in Washington to well-off parents. Her father, Anderson Doniphan Johnston, was an accountant in the Treasury Department. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Benjamin Johnston, was one of the first women to become a political reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She was also a drama critic for the newspaper, under the pseudonym “Ione”.

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

The switch to photography, she said, was prompted by a gift in 1888 from family friend George Eastman: an early model of her first celluloid film camera. His parents organized training with Thomas Smillie, the first official photographer and curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. Through the contacts he provided, she traveled to Europe and met prominent artists of the time. In 1894, she knew enough about her trade to open a portrait studio in Washington, the only woman suspected of operating one at the time.

Johnston’s fame today is largely based on the photo album she made in 1899 at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University). Established in 1868 to educate newly freed slaves from the South (and, after 1878, Native Americans), it was mixed and residential. Johnston and an assistant spent a month comprehensively illustrating the school’s myriad of teaching courses, from physics to animal husbandry, and teaching photography to interested students.

Booker T. Washington, a Hampton graduate, asked him 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 traveling with at night were pursued by a mob of white vigilantes. One of her narrowly escaped comrades, George Washington Carver, called her “the bravest woman I have ever seen.”

Over 100 of Hampton’s photographs were featured at the 1900 Paris Exposition in an Exhibition on Black Americans, organized by WEB Du Bois and others to highlight the social progress African Americans have made in the United States. . He received a grand prize as well as favorable reviews in the European and African-American press.

At the same time, upon her election as a delegate to the International Congress of Photography in Paris, Johnston organized a landmark exhibition of 142 photographs of 28 American female photographers; he then traveled to Russia.

Alfred Stieglitz published two of his photographs in his journal “Camera Notes” in 1898 and 1899. But in the decades that followed, she strayed so far from artistic orbits that in 1942, when the arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein stumbled across an anonymous leather-bound wallet of Hampton’s photographs at an antique bookstore in Washington, unsure who made them.

He showed the images to John Szarkowski, then director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who was also taken aback. After eventually identifying Johnston as the author, the museum made up for its bewilderment by exhibiting 43 of the photographs in 1966 and publishing a small catalog. A significantly expanded version of the Hampton album was released by MoMA in 2019.

Johnston never married but had an intense affair in the 1910s with Mattie Hewitt, a divorced woman and fellow photographer. Friendships and professional associations were easier. One of her longest relationships was with Huntley Ruff, her African-American driver and assistant in the 1930s and 1940s, to whom she bequeathed her large automobile.

Making money with his photography has always been a higher priority for Johnston than getting into art. “A good job must sell for a good price, and the wise woman will give a paying value to her best efforts,” she advised in 1897. She considered herself an honest craftswoman. “I leave the tour angles to Margaret Bourke-White and surrealism to Salvador Dalí,” she told an interviewer in 1947.

Johnston died on May 16, 1952 in New Orleans, in a townhouse on Bourbon Street which she named “Arkady”. She was 88 years old. Over 20,000 of his photographs, as well as 3,700 glass and film negatives, are now held in the Library of Congress. She never had a full museum retrospective.

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