Saturday, July 25, 2009

Frances Benjamin Johnston

A tribute to Frances Benjamin Johnston. She was one of the first women to make photography a career in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when it was still very much a man's all business was.

(All images from the library of congress online digital collections)

TITLE: Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1332 V St., Washington, D.C., makes a business of photographic illustration and the writing of descriptive articles ... / Mills Thompson '95.

"Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) born in Grafton Virginia but was a resident of Washington DC for most of her long life. Johnston was an early photo-journalist and a noted freelance photographer; she was one of the first American women to achieve prominence as a photographer. Trained at the Académie Julian in Paris, she studied photography upon her return to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1880 and opened a professional studio circa 1890. Her family's social position gave Miss Johnston access to the First Family and leading Washington political figures and launched her career as a photojournalist and portrait photographer. One of her scoops as a correspondent for the Bain News Service was to board Admiral Dewey's flagship with a letter of introduction from Theodore Roosevelt and interview the "Hero of Manila Bay" en route from the Philippines. Johnston's documentary work was exemplary and included a renowned series of photographs commissioned by Booker T. Washington for the Hampton Institute in 1899 and the Tuskegee Institute in 1906. While she specialized in the photos of the powerful and elite she also on occasion did scenes of workers and working class life about 1905 she did a remarkable series of photographs depicting mechanics and laborers at work at the Naval Gun Factory.

Today the Library of Congress is the principal repository of the writings and photographs of Frances Benjamin Johnston. She was one of the first contributors to the Library's Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture and executed a systematic survey of southern architecture with the support of the Carnegie Corporation." John Sharp,

TITLE: [Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, standing in garden, right profile] photograph by Gertrude Käsebier.

Considering her bold career choice it strikes me as vastly appropriate that she chose to create portraits of herself dressed as a man.

TITLE: [Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man with false moustache, posed with bicycle, facing left]

The photograph below was considered outrageous because she chose to wear a man's cap and revealed way too much of her stockinged legs! Not to mention the beer & cigarette...

TITLE: [Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of fireplace, facing left, holding cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other, in her Washington, D.C. studio]

Frances Johnston inspires me and reminds me of a quote I once read "Well-behaved women rarely make history." -Laurel Thatcher Ulrich From Johnston's business choice and her provocative self-portraits you can tell that she must have been quite and outlandish woman for her time! While I am very much a girly-girl, I admire and respect the women who came before me who gave me a CHOICE in this. I am fortunate to be able to choose the career of photographer, or any career at all for that matter, and not be a societal misfit. Thank you Frances Benjamin Johnston!

Where did the sudden interest in Frances Johnston come from? I just started an amazing book, A Flickering Light, by Jane Kirkpatrick. It is historical novel about Jessie Anne Gaebele, photographer and the author's grandmother.

About 60 pages into the book, Jessie is just starting her job as a photographer's assistant. Her boss tells her about the photograph above and I just HAD to find a copy to see! It's too bad a copy of the image wasn't included in the book. I can't wait to learn more about Jessie Anne and the other female photographers Jane Kirkpatrick writes about in her novel.
(Jane Kirkpatrick's blog:


Jessica Halversen said...

Jessie was my great great grandmother! I am a photographer and I have been trying to research her. I found your page and thought that your post was neat! Thanks for posting those cool pictures. I am having a lot of fun learning about her and her contemporary female photographers!

Katie Ring said...

Jessica, thank you for commenting! How cool that she was your great grandmother! What an amazing role model for you!