A generation before reconstructionist Berenice Abbott took her camera to the streets, pioneering female photographer and photojournalist Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston (January 15, 1864—May 16, 1952) revolutionized the cultural impact of the photographic image.
The only surviving child in a well-to-do family, Johnston was raised by intelligent, connected, and progressive parents — her mother was a female congressional journalist and drama critic, an occupation as uncommon for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century as they come. From a young age, Frances was heavily engaged in public life and unafraid to have a voice. After receiving her education at the Académie Julian in Paris and graduating from the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in 1883, she began writing critical essays and articles for print publications, until she received her first camera as a gift from George Eastman, inventor of the legendary Eastman Kodak cameras and a close family friend. Young Frances fell instantly in love with photography and found in the burgeoning medium an outlet for her creative restlessness and her intense interest in social commentary.
She began with portraits of family and friends, and by the 1890s was already touring Europe as a freelance photographer. An 1895 Washington Times article described Johnston as “the only lady in the business of photography in the city,” admiringly adding that “in her skillful hands it has become an art that rivals the geniuses of the old world.”
She photographed many of the era’s most celebrated public figures, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Roosevelt, Admiral Dewey, and the famed African-American educator, author, orator, and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington, who also asked Johnston to take portraits of Hampton Institute’s black students in a seminal 1899 exhibition aimed at celebrating African Americans’ positive contributions to society. The six-week assignment paid her $1,000 plus living expenses for herself and her assistant — an astonishing sum at the time, and doubly so for a woman running her own business, in a creative field no less. At the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, Johnston took the last portrait of President William McKinley shortly before his assassination.
Bettina Berch writes in the excellent biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston:
By the standards of the day, Johnston was a “self-made” woman. Far from identifying with the poor or the working class, she focused on cultivating the upper class, whose commissions were her mainstay.
Johnston’s seminal 1897 article titled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera,” published in Ladies’ Home Journal, included the following advice:
Photography as a profession should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business—but only under very well defined conditions. The prime requisites — as summed up in my mind after long experience and thought — are these: 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. This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible, and hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large result.
Perhaps most timeless of all, however — and timelier than ever, in our age of aesthetic consumerism where everyone is a photographer — is Johnston’s admonition in the article:
Any person of average intelligence can produce photographs by the thousand, but to give art value to the fixed image of the [camera] requires imagination, discriminating taste, and, in fact, all that is implied by a true appreciation of the beautiful. For this reason it is wrong to regard photography as purely mechanical. Mechanical it is, up to a certain point, but beyond that there is great scope for individual and artistic expression.
In 1913, Johnston and her lover, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, opened a studio together in New York City, where she lectured on women’s entrepreneurship at NYU and began documenting the city’s architecture in the 1920s. The experience further kindled her interest in architecture and its role as a bastion of social status. In 1928, she exhibited a pioneering series of photographs, ranging from the abandoned mac-mansions of the wealthy to the dilapidated dwellings of the poor — a powerful foreboding of the Great Depression and America’s growing income inequality, which influenced photojournalists for generations to come and inspired similar contemporary projects that contrast poverty and privilege in everything from children’s bedrooms to daily diets around the world.
Johnston moved to New Orleans in 1940 — a vibrant city of boundless visual stimulation for the creative artist — and died there in 1952, at the age of 88. She continued to photograph until her final days.
Learn more: The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston | Wikipedia