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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Francis Benjamin Johnston

Other: Frances B. Johnston 
Dates:  1864, 15 January - 1952, 16 March
Born:  US, WV, Grafton
Died:  US, LA, New Orleans
Active:  US
American photographer. Her Hampton Album on a craft school for Black and Native Americans in the early 1900s is outstanding.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Francis Benjamin Johnston
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Frances Benjamin Johnston enjoyed a long career as a documentary and journalistic photographer. But she also associated with camera clubs and pictorial photographers for a time around the turn of the twentieth century, in both New York and Washington, D.C. She was born in Grafton, West Virginia, on January 15, 1864. She attended Maryland’s Nôtre Dame Convent, and studied art in Paris at the Académe Julian from 1883 to 1885 and in Washington, D.C. from 1885 to 1888.
A year after obtaining her first camera in 1889, Johnston learned photography from Thomas W. Smillie, while serving an apprenticeship under him at the Smithsonian Institution. At this time, she also worked as a magazine correspondent, writing articles and drawing her own illustrations. She soon switched to making photographic illustrations and in 1894 established a well-equipped portrait studio in a picturesque brick building in Washington.
Johnston received many commissions, allowing her to travel extensively and become known as the first woman press photographer. Family connections gave her access to the White House, and she photographed the administrations of Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, her work appearing in magazines and newspapers. She wrote a short article for the September 1897 issue of Ladies’ Homes Journal titled "What a Woman Can Do with a Camera." Among her subjects around this time were such newly opened schools as Virginia’s Hampton Institute and Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.
Johnston was most active among pictorialists early in her career. Her first recorded presence in any exhibition was the 1891 Joint Exhibition, organized by the leading camera clubs in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. She joined the Capital Camera Club by 1895, exhibited in its annual shows, and was eventually designated an honorary member. She also became a member of the important Camera Club of New York, which gave her a one-person exhibition of artistic portraits and genre scenes in November 1898. A few months later, Alfred Stieglitz included a photogravure of her image Gainsborough Girl in Camera Notes, the country’s leading periodical for artistic photography. Her images were also reproduced in the American Annual of Photography three times and England’s Photograms of the Year five times around the turn of the century.
She was both an exhibitor and judge at other venues for creative photography. Johnston served on the jury for the Philadelphia Photographic Salon in 1899 and 1901 and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Salons that accepted her work included those in Chicago, Cleveland, London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. She exhibited in exhibitions at camera clubs in New York and Rochester, as well as Boston, where she had a solo show in March 1899. Perhaps most importantly, Alfred Stieglitz admitted her into the Photo-Secession, this country’s most exclusive group of artistic photographers.
In 1900, Johnston drew international attention for her contributions to the Universal Exposition in Paris. As a delegate to the Congress of Photography that took place there, she organized an exhibition by American women photographers, on which she also lectured. Subsequently, she wrote a series of articles on seven of these individuals for the Ladies’ Homes Journal, in late 1901 and early 1902.
Around 1910, Johnston moved her portrait business to New York. Three years later, she partnered with Mattie Edwards Hewitt, and the two specialized in interior and exterior architectural photography. Going back to solo work in 1917, Johnston concentrated for the next ten years on photographing gardens and estates, traveling widely around the country and in Europe in 1925. In 1933, she received the first of seven grants from the Carnegie Corporation to document colonial buildings in the South. This resulted in the publication of a number of books over the next two decades on the churches, dwellings, mansions, and plantations of the region.
For this work, Johnston was bestowed an honorary membership by the American Institute of Architects in 1945. She went into semi-retirement about this time, and moved to New Orleans. Late in life, she donated most of her negatives, prints, and papers to the Library of Congress, which organized a major show drawn from them in 1947. Frances Benjamin Johnston died in New Orleans, on May 16, 1952. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Further research

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Francis Benjamin Johnston
[Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man with false moustache, posed with bicycle, facing left] 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Visual indexes for this photographer are available for subscribers.There is so much more to explore when you subscribe. 

Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website

Internet resources

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Frances Benjamin Johnston - Biographical overview and chronology - Library of Congress ... 
Frances Benjamin Johnston - Finding aid for manuscripts and papers - Library of Congress ... 
Frances Benjamin Johnston - Magic lantern slides - Library of Congress ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.84 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.272-273 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Francis Benjamin Johnston.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.170-171 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Francis Benjamin Johnston is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.52 [Analyzes a single photograph by Francis Benjamin Johnston.] 
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