The only surviving child of wealthy and well connected parents, she was raised in Washington D.C. and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Washington Students League. An independent and strong willed young woman, she wrote articles for periodicals before finding her creative outlet through photography after she was given her first camera by George Eastman, a close friend of the family, and inventor of the new, lighter, Eastman Kodak cameras. She received training in photography and dark room techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian.
She took portraits of friends, family and local figures before working as a freelance photographer and touring Europe in the 1890s, using her connection to Smillie to visit prominent photographers and gather items for the museum's collections. She gained further practical experience in her craft by working for the newly formed Eastman Kodak company in Washington D.C. forwarding film for development and advising customers when cameras needed repairs. She opened her own photographic studio in Washington D.C. in 1895, taking portraits of many famous contemporaries including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. Well connected among elite society, she was commissioned by magazines to do 'celebrity' portraits and was dubbed the "Photographer to the American court." She photographed Admiral Dewey on the deck of the USS Olympia, the Roosevelt children playing with their pet pony at the White House and the gardens of Edith Wharton's famous villa near Paris.
Her mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, had been a congressional journalist for the Baltimore Sun and her daughter built on her familiarity with the Washington political scene by becoming official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, "TR" Roosevelt, and Taft presidential administrations.
Johnston also photographed the famous American heiress and literary salon socialite Natalie Barney in Paris but perhaps her most famous work, shown opposite, is her self portrait of the liberated 'New Woman', petticoats showing and beer stein in hand. Johnston was a constant advocate for the role of women in the burgeoning art of photography. The Ladies Home Journal published Johnston's article "What a Woman Can Do With a Camera" in 1897 and she curated an exhibition of photographs by twenty-eight women photographers at the 1900 Paris Exposition. She traveled widely in her thirties, taking a wide range of documentary and artistic photographs of coal miners, iron workers, women in New England's mills and sailors being tattooed on board ship as well as her society commissions.
In 1899, she gained further notability when she was commissioned by Booker T. Washington to photograph the the buildings and students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia in order to show its success; it was the first educational establishment to admit African and Native Americans. This series, documenting the ordinary life of the school, remains as some of her most telling work. It was displayed at the Exposé nègre of the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 .
She 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. With her partner, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, a successful freelance home and garden photographer in her own right, she opened a studio in New York in 1913. They produced a series of studies of New York architecture through the 1920s.
In the second decade of the 20th century, she became increasingly interested in photographing architecture, motivated by a desire to document buildings and gardens which were falling into disrepair or about to be redeveloped and lost. Her photographs remain an important resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists. She exhibited a series of 247 photographs of Fredericksburg, from the decaying mansions of the rich to the shacks of the poor, in 1928. The exhibit was titled "Pictorial Survey--Old Fredericksburg, Virginia--Old Falmouth and Nearby Places" and described as "A Series of Photographic Studies of the Architecture of the Region Dating by Tradition from Colonial Times to Circa 1830" as "An Historical Record and to Preserve Something of the Atmosphere of An Old Virginia Town."
Publicity from the display prompted the University of Virginia to hire her to document its buildings and the state of North Carolina to record its architectural history. Louisiana hired Johnston to document its huge inventory of rapidly deteriorating plantations and she was given a grant in 1933 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to document Virginia's early architecture. This led to a series of grants and photographs of eight other southern states, all of which were given to the Library of Congress for public use. Johnston was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects for her work in preserving old and endangered buildings and her collections have been purchased by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Although her relentless traveling was curtailed by petrol rationing in the Second World War the tireless Johnston continued to photograph until her death in New Orleans at age eighty-eight.
The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston/ Beyond the Architect's Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment
Aug 01, 2010; The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston. By Maria Elizabeth Ausherman. (Gainesville and other cities: University...