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Johnston, Frances Benjamin (1864-1952)  
 
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Unlike most women of the Victorian era, pioneering photojournalist and documentary photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston was destined to become an independent trailblazer. Her mother, one writer observed, "acted as if equal rights for women were already a fait accompli."

Young Frances, who was born in West Virginia on January 15, 1864, grew up witnessing her mother's success as a journalist in late nineteenth-century Washington D. C., covering the hardball world of politics.

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While most of her contemporaries were trolling the marriage market, Johnston was already planning a career. When not yet twenty years old, she left home for Paris to study studio art at the Académie Julian. There she learned drawing and composition, as well as the basics of symmetry and perspective, skills that would serve her well.

Johnston also immersed herself in the boisterous bohemian social life of the Paris art world. Returning home in 1885, she emerged a thoroughly modern woman. For the remainder of her long life--she lived to age 88--she enthusiastically enjoyed her liquor and cigarettes and happily flouted social conventions of all kinds.

Indeed, one of her most famous images, a self-portrait from around 1896, shows her as a "new woman," skirts hiked to the knee, a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other, reveling in the transgression of a number of the social conventions that restricted proper Victorian ladies.

Another depicts her wearing a false mustache and dressed as a man. In this image, she poses before a bicycle, itself a contemporary symbol of women's independence and strength. This image in particular is reminscent of the work of photographer Alice Austen, who photographed women in male , often on bicycles, and may be intended as an homage to her.

Johnston's Career

Johnston first made a living by drawing illustrations to accompany magazine articles. That work soon expanded to writing the articles as well.

Photography, which had been invented early in the century, became much more accessible when George Eastman developed his No. 1 Kodak in 1888. Magazines and newspapers then eagerly sought photographs instead of drawings.

Johnston wrote Eastman, inquiring about his new camera, and he sent her one. Thus began her new career.

Johnston's decision to embark on a career as a photographer was a daring one. Although the new technology--especially lighter cameras and new ways of developing film--opened the field to women, social conventions nevertheless marked photography as a male preserve. Johnston's boldness is particularly clear in her interest in figure studies and nudes, subjects deemed unseemly for women artists in the nineteenth century.

In 1895 Johnston opened her own photography studio in her family's home at 1332 V Street NW and built a very successful business as a portraitist. Among her notable subjects were Susan B. Anthony, Alice Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Joel Chandler Harris, George Washington Carver, and Isadora Duncan.

Johnston's family connections--her father was an executive at the U. S. Department of the Treasury and her mother was a journalist--gave her access to prominent figures in both politics and society. She became the official White House photographer for the administrations of Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. She is responsible for many of the images by which these historical figures are most readily evoked.

One of her most famous photographs is that of Natalie Clifford Barney, the famous American expatriate lesbian who hosted a salon in Paris at 20 rue Jacob. Another is her photograph of President McKinley, taken minutes before he was shot in Buffalo, New York in September 1901.

Although she became famous for her images of politicians and socialites, Johnston also took a number of photographs of nude females. She also created images of sailors dancing together.

She next moved into the field of social photography, where she became noted as an important photodocumentarian for her images of students in Washington schools, at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama--both founded to educate newly freed slaves--and the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Critics have noted that Johnston always respected her subjects equally, presenting black students in a carpentry class with as much dignity as Presidents and debutantes.

Acutely aware of the obstacles faced by women in her profession, Johnston became a fierce advocate for women in photography. At the Paris Exposition of 1900, she curated an exhibition of photographs by twenty-eight women photographers.

Johnston's career moved into its third phase in the early twentieth century. She discovered that photographing gardens and giving lectures to garden clubs was very lucrative. Perhaps inspired by her business partner and presumed lover, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, a home and garden photographer, Johnston became a well-known garden photographer herself. Among her portfolio were documentations of the Dupont estates and the garden of Edith Wharton.

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zoom in
Two self-portraits by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Top: Seated in front of a fireplace with a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other.
Above: Wearing a false mustache and dressed as a man.

  
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