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In Photos: Remembering Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston

January 15, 2016 /Photography News/ Born 152 years ago, on 15 January 1864, Frances Benjamin Johnston was one of the earliest American female photographers and photojournalists.

She received her first camera from George Eastman - the inventor of the Eastman Kodak cameras - and was trained by Thomas William Smillie, the director of photography at the Smithsonian Institute. 

Johnston began her professional life as an artist-reporter. Sensing a changing trend in journalistic illustration while working as the Washington correspondent for a New York newspaper, she turned to photography.

She made her name as a photographer in the 1890s, taking portraits of the political elite in Washington, D.C. - she was the official White House photographer during the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosvelt, and Taft administrations.

The Ladies Home Journal published in 1897 Johnston's article What a Woman Can Do With a Camera, urging women to consider photography as a means of supporting themselves. She co-curated (with Zaida Ben-Yusuf) an exhibition of photographs by twenty-eight women photographers at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, which afterwards travelled to Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Washington, DC.

Johnston photographed events such as world's fairs and peace-treaty signings and took the last portrait of President William McKinley, at the Pan American Exposition of 1901 just before his assassination.

In 1904 Johnston joined the Photo-Secession.

In the 1920s she became increasingly interested in photographing architecture, being one of the first contributors to the Pictorial Archives of Early American ArchitectureHer photographs remain an important resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.

She was a juror for the second Philadelphia Salon of Photography, received four consecutive Carnegie Foundation grants to document historic gardens and architecture of the South, and was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects in 1945. 

Johnston continued to photograph until her death in May 1952 at age 88.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man with false moustache, posed with penny-farthing bicycle, facing left. Between 1880 and 1900.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man with false moustache, posed with penny-farthing bicycle, facing left. Between 1880 and 1900.
A picture of Isadora Duncan's student's, including Isadorable dancers. Caption card tracings: BI; Dance--Modern; Shelf. Duncan, Isadora, 1878-1927. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress.
A picture of Isadora Duncan's student's, including Isadorable dancers. Caption card tracings: BI; Dance--Modern; Shelf. Duncan, Isadora, 1878-1927. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length [self-]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, 1896.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length [self-]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, 1896.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (right) poses with two cross-dressing friends, the "lady" is identified by Johnston as the illustrator Mills Thompson, 1890.
Frances Benjamin Johnston (right) poses with two cross-dressing friends, the "lady" is identified by Johnston as the illustrator Mills Thompson, 1890.

"Salon jury, Philadelphia," photographic print, by the American photographer and photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston, dated 1899. The portrait shows photographic salon jury members in profile, including, from left, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Henry Troth, F. Holland Day, and Frances Benjamin Johnston. This image forms part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress.
"Salon jury, Philadelphia," photographic print, by the American photographer and photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston, dated 1899. The portrait shows photographic salon jury members in profile, including, from left, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Henry Troth, F. Holland Day, and Frances Benjamin Johnston. This image forms part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress.
Two girls from a Washington, D.C., school on a class visit to the Library of Congress, looking at an exhibit of relief or wood engravings, one with her chin on shoulder of the other, 1899.
Two girls from a Washington, D.C., school on a class visit to the Library of Congress, looking at an exhibit of relief or wood engravings, one with her chin on shoulder of the other, 1899.
A Kodak creates a sensation," photographic print by the American photographer and photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston, image from 1890-1910. The photograph forms part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
A Kodak creates a sensation," photographic print by the American photographer and photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston, image from 1890-1910. The photograph forms part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.



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