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Fri, 01.15.1864

Francis Johnston, Photographer born

Francis B. Johnston

*Francis Johnston was born on this date in 1864. She was a white-American photographer.

An only child, Francis Benjamin Johnston was born in Grafton, West Virginia, to an affluent family.  She was raised in Washington, D.C., where her family moved soon after she was born. In the nation's capital, her parents were active in high-ranking political and social circles, and their connections, particularly her mother's, would greatly benefit Johnston's education and subsequent career as a photographer. Also, Johnston drew a great deal of inspiration from the independent female role models in her family: her free-willed Aunt Nin and her mother. They worked as journalists for the Baltimore Sun and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Johnston graduated from the Notre Dame Academy near Baltimore in 1884. Her parents' connections to the Washington elite enabled her to study art in France at the prestigious Academie Julien in Paris as one of the first women to attend the school. In 1885, she returned to Washington at age 21, planning to make a living as an artist. For a while, she drew illustrations for magazines and sometimes wrote columns. But she soon became more interested in photography because it resulted in more accurate depictions than painting or drawing.

Again, her mother's connections served her well, as she soon began studying photography under Thomas Smillie at the Smithsonian Institution. Smillie taught the aspiring photographer how to use a camera and work inside a dark room. Johnston received her first camera from family friend George Eastman and began establishing a name for herself as a professional photographer. She was the first female member of the Capitol Camera Club. At the time, photography, or "pictorialism," as it was called, was a relatively new field, and its application was mainly for journalistic purposes and not as an art form. As her skills developed, Johnston would incorporate both journalistic and artistic elements into her work, which would result in a distinctive style that greatly influenced the field and made her famous.

From the 1880s and into the 1910s, she would take pictures during the administrations of Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This resulted in an outstanding and historically invaluable pictorial document that depicted the members of the various first families and White House staff members and visitors. In 1889, not long after she first gained entrance into the White House, Johnston opened a studio behind her father's house.

She soon developed a reputation both as a smart businesswoman and a talented photographer. Not only was she a founding member of the Business Women's Club, but also her photographs decorated the club's walls. Besides the nation's presidents, she photographed President Theodore Roosevelt's high-spirited daughter Alice Roosevelt, feminist Susan B. Anthony, women workers in New England textile mills, ironworkers, and coal miners. It is also surmised that she helped establish the tradition of school pictures for students.

In 1899, when she was 37 years old and at the height of her skills, Johnston produced a collection of photographs that are some of her most famous and best works. That year, Hampton Institute, a historical black college founded to train emancipated Black slaves, hired her to take pictures at the school that would be included in an exhibition about contemporary African American life. The project demonstrated the best qualities of her work: her strong sense of pictorial composition coupled with her skillful arrangement of human subjects. Individual photographs, which depicted Hampton students in classrooms and vocational surroundings, demonstrated remarkable photographic clarity.

Some were stark and intense, as Johnston played with black and white shading to a powerful effect that underscored the separation between blacks and whites in American society. Many pictures were presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 as part of the "American Negro" exhibit (organized by prominent Black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The Hampton photographs alone would have been enough to secure Johnston's status as one of America's greatest photographers. But she had other great works ahead of her. Like the images in the Hampton collection, the other photographs that Johnston produced at this point in her career provide a rich pictorial account of the United States, as her work preserved images of settings and famous people that defined the essence of a particular period of the nation's history.

In 1910, her career direction took a significant shift when she began specializing in architectural photography. Instead of doing portraiture and journalistic pieces, Johnston now photographed striking examples of architecture as well as the homes and gardens of rich and famous people. During the period, she lived with Mattie Hewitt. The two women shared a profession and a relationship for about eight years. They went their separate ways in 1917. As she approached and surpassed her 50s, Johnston never slowed down in her pursuit of new projects and subject matter. She even actively engaged in acquiring new knowledge about her profession. In 1905, Johnston, her mother, and her aunt became close friends with the Lumiere brothers in France. They taught Johnston the theory and practice of their new photographic process. By 1912, she was making "color photo-transparencies."

In 1906, she took only a large project, similar in scope to the Hampton project, when she photographed the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. When that work was done, Booker T. Washington sent Johnston to make photographs of some of the little schools launched by Tuskegee alumni. She traveled by train to the Ramer Colored Institute School, ten miles south of Montgomery. Late one evening, she was met by George Washington Carver and Nelson Henry, the Ramer school's founder and principal for the past six years.

As Ramer drove the attractive young Johnson from the station toward his house, they were accosted by a group of white men who drew the conclusion that Henry had breached racial etiquette and shot at the couple three times. Henry fled Ramer as white patrols declared their intention to beat him to death. Carver walked all night to get away. Somehow Johnston escaped on a train. An investigation by the governor of Alabama concluded that the incident was the work of a few hotheads. But Henry was unwilling to risk a return to Ramer, notwithstanding the years invested there. Blacks in Ramer had advised him not to come back, and the school closed.

Johnston moved south in July of 1927 when, during a car tour of the eastern United States, she decided to settle in Virginia. Several years later, during the Great Depression, and funded by a grant from the Carnegie Institute, she again took to the road and traveled throughout the country taking photographs. Her most significant project during her architectural phase involved photographing still-standing pre-Civil War, or antebellum, mansions and early buildings throughout nine southern states. The Carnegie Institute again funded her.

Johnston's purpose was to capture the essence and preserve a record of early architecture indigenous to the south before the buildings were lost forever. She moved permanently to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1945, where she enjoyed being part of the bohemian culture.  Francis Johnston, who whose work included preserving early higher education for African America, died on March 16, 1952, in New Orleans, Louisiana. After her death, her estate donated many of her photographs to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

To Become a Photographer


Library of

Berch, Bettina,
The Woman Behind the Lens:
The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952,
University of Virginia Press, 2000.

Up from History
(The Life of Booker T. Washington)
Robert J. Norrell,
ISBN 9780674060371

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