Frances Benjamin Johnston: Radical, Pioneer, Feminist

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952)

Eccentric and unconventional, Johnston was the first female official White House photographer, serving the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft presidential administrations. She took the last portrait of President William McKinley just before he was assassinated.

Having grown up in a family that travelled in elite circles of Washington, D.C. (her first photography lesson was from George Eastman of Eastman/Kodak!), Johnston already had connections with the Washington political scene and photographed historic occasions and World Fairs.

With her partner (in life and love), Mattie Edwards Hewitt (below), a successful freelance home and garden photographer, Johnston opened a studio in New York in 1913.


Johnston also photographed her friend and (presumably) lover, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), in Paris: she was a famous American heiress, poet, and literary salon socialite.

Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) was an American playwright, poet and novelist who lived openly as a lesbian in Paris. In her writings she supported feminism and pacifism.


But perhaps Johnston's most famous works are her own eccentric self-portraits, including this one as the liberated "New Woman," with petticoats showing and a cigarette and beer stein in hand.


She travelled widely in her thirties, taking a wide range of documentary and artistic photographs of coal miners, iron workers, New England's textile mills, and sailors being tattooed on board ship, as well as her society commissions.

Johnston is famous for her portraits at the Tuskegee Institute, including this one featuring George Washington Carver (centre, bottom row), c. 1902. *Tuskegee University is a private, historically black land-grant university in Tuskegee, Alabama.


In 1899, Johnston was commissioned by Hollis Burke Frissell to photograph the buildings and students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia in order to show its success. This commission added to her reputation. This series, documenting the ordinary life of the school, is considered among her most telling work.




In the 1920s, Johnston became increasingly interested in photographing architecture. As New York changed under pressure of development, she wanted to document buildings and gardens that were falling into disrepair or were about to be redeveloped and lost.



As her focus in architecture grew, she became interested in documenting the architecture and preserving the everyday history of the American South through her art, photographing barns, inns, and the quickly deteriorating structures that portrayed the daily life of Southerners.


In 1927 Johnston moved back to Washington where she worked with the Library of Congress documenting historic southern houses and gardens until her retirement to New Orleans in 1945.


Her photographs remain an important resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.


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