Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston (15 January 1864 – 16 May 1952) was an early American female photographer and photojournalist whose career lasted for almost half a century. She is most known for her portraits, images of southern architecture, and various photographic series featuring African Americans and Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.
The only surviving child of wealthy and well connected parents, she was born in Grafton, West Virginia, raised in Washington, D.C., and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Washington Students League following her graduation from Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in 1883 (now known as Notre Dame of Maryland University). An independent and strong-willed young woman, she wrote articles for periodicals before finding her creative outlet through photography after she was given her first camera by George Eastman, a close friend of the family, and inventor of the new, lighter, Eastman Kodak cameras. She received training in photography and darkroom techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian.
Self-portrait by Johnston, dressed as a man, sporting a fake mustache and holding a bicycle, ca. 1890. She took portraits of friends, family and local figures before working as a freelance photographer and touring Europe in the 1890s, using her connection to Smillie to visit prominent photographers and gather items for the museum’s collections. She gained further practical experience in her craft by working for the newly formed Eastman Kodak company in Washington, D.C., forwarding film for development and advising customers when cameras needed repairs. In 1894 she opened her own photographic studio in Washington, D.C., on V Street between 13th and 14th Streets, and at the time was the only woman photographer in the city. She took portraits of many famous contemporaries including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. Well connected among elite society, she was commissioned by magazines to do “celebrity” portraits, such as Alice Roosevelt’s wedding portrait, and was dubbed the “Photographer to the American court.” She photographed Admiral Dewey on the deck of the USS Olympia, the Roosevelt children playing with their pet pony at the White House and the gardens of Edith Wharton’s famous villa near Paris.
Her mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, had been a congressional journalist and dramatic critic for the Baltimore Sun and her daughter built on her familiarity with the Washington political scene by becoming official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, “TR” Roosevelt, and Taft presidential administrations.
Johnston also photographed the famous American heiress and literary salon socialite Natalie Barney in Paris but perhaps her most famous work, shown here, is her self-portrait of the liberated “New Woman”, petticoats showing and beer stein in hand. Johnston was a constant advocate for the role of women in the burgeoning art of photography. The Ladies’ Home Journal published Johnston’s article “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera” in 1897 and she co-curated (with Zaida Ben-Yusuf) an exhibition of photographs by twenty-eight women photographers at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, which afterward traveled to Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Washington, DC. She traveled widely in her thirties, taking a wide range of documentary and artistic photographs of coal miners, iron workers, women in New England’s mills and sailors being tattooed on board ship as well as her society commissions. While in England she photographed the stage actress Mary Anderson, who was a friend of her mother.
In 1899, she gained further notability when she was commissioned by Hollis Burke Frissell to photograph the buildings and students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia in order to show its success. This series, documenting the ordinary life of the school, remains as some of her most telling work. It was displayed at The Exhibit of American Negroes of the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900.
She photographed events such as world’s fairs and peace-treaty signings and took the last portrait of President William McKinley, at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 just before his assassination. With her partner, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, a successful freelance home and garden photographer in her own right, she opened a studio in New York in 1913 and moved in with her mother and aunt.
Hewitt wrote Johnston love letters over the course of their relationship, which are chronicled in “The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952.” Many of the early letters focused on Hewitt’s admiration for Johnston’s work, but as their romance progressed, they became increasingly full of words of love: “…when I need you or you need me — [we] must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight…”
She lectured at New York University on business for women and they produced a series of studies of New York architecture through the 1920s. In early 1920 her mother died in New York.
In the 1920s, she became increasingly interested in photographing architecture, motivated by a desire to document buildings and gardens which were falling into disrepair or about to be redeveloped and lost. As her focus in architecture grew, she became specifically interested in documenting the architecture of the American South. Johnston was interested in preserving the everyday history of the American South through her art; she accomplished this by photographing barns, inns, and other ordinary structures. She was not interested in photographing the grand homes and estates of the American South, but rather the quickly deteriorating structures in these communities that portrayed the life of common southerners. Her photographs remain an important resource for modern architects, historians, and conservationists. She exhibited a series of 247 photographs of Fredericksburg, Virginia, from the decaying mansions of the rich to the shacks of the poor, in 1928. The exhibition was entitled Pictorial Survey–Old Fredericksburg, Virginia–Old Falmouth and Nearby Places and described as “A Series of Photographic Studies of the Architecture of the Region Dating by Tradition from Colonial Times to Circa 1830” as “An Historical Record and to Preserve Something of the Atmosphere of An Old Virginia Town.”
“Arcady, where all the leaves are merry” Frances Benjamin Johnston’s house, 1132 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
Publicity from the display prompted the University of Virginia to hire her to document its buildings and the state of North Carolina to record its architectural history. Louisiana hired Johnston to document its huge inventory of rapidly deteriorating plantations and she was given a grant in 1933 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to document Virginia’s early architecture. This led to a series of grants and photographs of eight other southern states, all of which were given to the Library of Congress for public use. In December 1935, she began a year-long project to capture the less evolved structures of the Colonial Era in Virginia. This was effort was intended to be a one year project, but evolved into an eight-year extensive project, in which she surveyed 50,000 miles and 95 counties in Virginia.
Johnston was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects for her work in preserving old and endangered buildings and her collections have been purchased by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Although her relentless traveling was curtailed by petrol rationing in the Second World War the tireless Johnston continued to photograph. Johnston acquired a home in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1940, retiring there in 1945, where she died in 1952 at the age of eighty-eight.