Overlooked no more: Frances B. Johnston, photographer who defied genteel norms

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Overlooked no more: Frances B. Johnston, photographer who defied genteel norms
A photo by Frances B. Johnston taken in about 1900 at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University), part of a series of photos she made of classroom activity at two Black universities. Johnston was one of the first women in the U.S. to enjoy a long and fruitful career as a professional photographer, her success fueled by a prodigious energy and self-confidence, an ability to make highly skilled pictures with unwieldy view cameras, and a nose-thumbing defiance of genteel norms. Library of Congress via The New York Times.

by Richard B. Woodward

NEW YORK, NY.- Frances B. Johnston, one of the first women in the United States to enjoy a long and fruitful career as a professional photographer, had by all accounts so indelible a personality that it is hard to believe that she could ever have been forgotten.

Undaunted by obstacles faced by others of her gender and happy to rattle the easily shocked, she demonstrated her character early on with an 1896 self-portrait titled “The New Woman,” in which she sits in profile beside a fireplace, her dress hiked up to reveal a ribbon of petticoat. In her right hand is a cigarette, in her left a beer stein. For an even brassier self-portrait, she assumed a head-to-toe male persona, complete with mustache and trousers.

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

Her success was fueled by a prodigious energy and self-confidence, an ability to make highly skilled pictures with unwieldy view cameras, and a nose-thumbing defiance of genteel norms.

In speeches and in print, she called for other women to follow her lead. Her brusque and practical advice was offered in an 1897 article for Ladies’ Home Journal titled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera”: “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. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital and a field to exploit.”

Over her lifetime, photography underwent a series of technological innovations that abetted her ambition. She benefited from the introduction in the 1890s of a dependable halftone process, which made photographic reproduction commercially viable for newspapers and magazines. Her images of women in New England shoe factories during that decade were distributed on an early U.S. news service. Its founder, George Grantham Bain, was, in effect, her agent until 1910.

She also portrayed eminences of the day, including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and journalist Joel Chandler Harris, along with five presidents: Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. She captured Adm. George Dewey and his crew aboard the flagship cruiser Olympia after their return from the Battle of Manila in 1899. She fortuitously took the last photograph of McKinley before his assassination in 1901, and it was widely reproduced.

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

The latter half of Johnston’s life was largely devoted to documenting historic architecture in nine states of the antebellum South. Supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation in the 1930s, she produced some 7,500 negatives. Two books of her works were published — “The Early Architecture of North Carolina: A Pictorial Survey” (1941) and, posthumously, “The Early Architecture of Georgia” (1957).

She began life with advantages that a contemporary like, say, photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals did not have.

Frances Benjamin Johnston was born on Jan. 15, 1864, in Grafton, West Virginia, and raised in Washington by well-to-do parents. Her father, Anderson Doniphan Johnston, was a bookkeeper for the Treasury Department. 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 drama critic for the paper, under the pseudonym “Ione.”

Johnston graduated from Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies before going to Paris to study drawing and painting at the Académie Julien. Upon her return to Washington in 1886, she continued her education 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 George Eastman, a family friend: an early model of his first celluloid roll-film camera. Her parents arranged for instruction with Thomas Smillie, the first official photographer and curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. Through contacts he provided, she traveled in Europe and met prominent artists of the day. By 1894 she knew enough about her craft to open a portrait studio in Washington, the only woman believed to be operating one at the time.

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

Booker T. Washington, a Hamptons 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 with whom she was traveling at night were pursued by a white vigilante mob. One of her fellow narrow escapees, George Washington Carver, called her “the pluckiest woman I ever saw.”

More than 100 of the Hampton photographs were shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition in an American Negro exhibit, organized by W.E.B. Du Bois and others to highlight social advances being made by African Americans in the United States. It received a grand prize along with favorable reviews in both 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 curated a landmark exhibition of 142 photographs by 28 American women photographers; it later traveled to Russia.

Alfred Stieglitz published two of her photographs in his journal “Camera Notes” in 1898 and 1899. But in the ensuing decades she moved so far outside artistic orbits that in 1942, when arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein came upon an anonymous leather-bound portfolio of the Hamptons photographs in an antiquarian bookstore in Washington, he was clueless as to who might have made them.

He showed the pictures to John Szarkowski, then the director of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, who was likewise baffled. After finally 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 greatly expanded version of the Hamptons Album was published by MoMA in 2019.

Johnston never married but had an intense affair in the 1910s with Mattie Hewitt, a divorced woman and a fellow photographer. Friendships and business associations 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 large automobile.

Making money from her photography was always a higher priority for Johnston than dabbling in art. “Good work should command good prices, and the wise woman will place a paying value upon her best efforts,” she advised in 1897. She saw herself as an honest craftswoman. “I leave the trick angles to Margaret Bourke-White and the surrealism to Salvador Dalí,” she told an interviewer in 1947.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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