Frances Benjamin Johnston


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Photographer. An early photojournalist, she also worked as an art photographer. Her best-known achievement, a series of photographs taken in the winter of 1899–1900 at the Hampton (Virginia) Normal and Agricultural Institute, fuses documentary and aesthetic concerns. Portraying the African-American and American Indian students of the school in daily activities, the classically composed, sensitively lit tableaux honor the school and its mission of providing dignity and opportunity to socially marginalized young people. Born in Grafton, West Virginia, Johnston lived as a child in Rochester, New York, and Washington, D.C. She studied art in Paris between 1883 and 1885 and then in Washington, where she also learned photography. After opening her own studio, she quickly became the capital's leading portrait photographer. Her subjects included several U.S. presidents and their wives, government officials, and visiting notables. She also accepted wide-ranging assignments for newspapers and magazines, investigating subjects as varied as bleak Pennsylvania coal fields and Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. An active member of the turn-of-the-century photographic community, she exhibited in several important national shows. Alfred Stieglitz published her work in Camera Notes, and she later joined the Photo-Secession. An 1899 series on the schools of Washington led to an invitation to photograph at Hampton. Subsequently, she undertook similar projects at the African-American Tuskegee (Alabama) Institute and at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1909, Johnston added architectural and interior design photography to her pursuits. Besides working for such powerhouse clients as Cass Gilbert and the McKim, Mead and White firm, she later recorded much of the South's historic and vernacular architecture. She died in New Orleans, her home in later years.

Subjects: Art.

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