In the early days of photography its pursuit was considered a male preserve. Ladies of the late 19th century, it was chauvinistically suggested, didn’t need to worry their pretty little heads about the complications of using a camera. As for those nasty, smelly chemicals—well, it was all best left to the men folk. Frances Benjamin Johnston was probably the first American woman to seriously challenge that idea.
Johnston was born in West Virginia in 1864 and had two good starts to her career. Her father, Anderson Doniphan Johnston, was a clerk at the US Treasury. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Benjamin, was a well-known congressional journalist. Their wealth allowed their only daughter to study art in Paris. In 1883, she
left the Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in Mary- land to study at the French Académie Julian. Unlike the École des Beaux-Arts, the Académie allowed women to enroll, and attracted students from across the world, in particular America.
Her second career boost came from George Eastman being a close family friend. Eastman was the man who, in 1888, produced the Kodak, a camera known for its simplicity of use, which opened up photography to people who might never before have thought of taking photographs. He gave Johnston her first camera.