America’s First Famous Woman Photographer

By John Wade Back to


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.

john wade, frances benjamin johnson

Archie Roosevelt, son of American President Theodore Roosevelt, 1902

Not content with a simple snapshot model, however, she went on to receive training in photography and darkroom techniques from Thomas Smillie, Director of Photography at the Smithsonian Institution, now the world’s largest museum and research complex.

In her early career Johnston worked as a reporter and artist for a New York newspaper, but soon saw how photography was transforming illustration work in the press. Her independent photographic career began by taking portraits of family, friends and local figures. Then she took off for Europe, using Smillie’s name to meet prominent photographers of the time. On her return she worked for a while for Eastman Kodak, be- fore opening her own studio in Washington in 1894.

She was the city’s only woman photographer and, helped by contacts made through her mother, she soon became accepted by Washington society, photo- graphing many rich and famous socialites. Tom Sawyer author Mark Twain came to her for a portrait, she photographed the Roosevelt children in the gardens of the White House, and was commissioned by magazines to shoot Alice Roosevelt’s wedding portrait. Her work as official White House photographer during several presidential administrations earned her the title of ‘Photographer to the American Court.’

She also took news pictures that included peace treaty signings, world’s fairs and the last portrait of President William McKinley in 1901 just before his assassination. In fact, there was little to which she did not turn her artistic talents. Traveling widely, she photo- graphed iron workers, coal miners, women mill work- ers in New England, and sailors being tattooed on board their ships, while still maintaining her society commissions. But there was more to Frances Benjamin Johnston than photography for its own sake. She was also a prolific writer and used many of her pictures to illustrate her own articles in popular magazines of the day.

Her talents as a writer, and also as a public speaker, often turned to championing women’s rights, not just in their everyday lives, but also their rights to be photographers. In 1897 she wrote an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal, the long-running American women’s magazine first published in 1883. The article was called What a Woman Can Do With a Camera. Here’s a little of what she told her readers:

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rances Benjamin Johnston, champion of women’s rights and probably America’s first famous female photographer, self- portrait, 1896

In order to solve successfully the problem of making a business profitable, the woman who either must or will earn her own living needs to discover a field of work for which there is a good demand, in which there is not too great competition, and which her individual tastes render in some way congenial.

There are many young women who have had a thorough art-training, whose talents do not lift their work above mediocrity, and so it is made profitless; others who, as amateurs, have dabbled a little in photography, and who would like to turn an agreeable pastime into more serious effort; while still another class might find this line of work pleasant and lucrative, where employment in the more restricted fields of typewriting, stenography, clerking, bookkeeping etc., would prove wearing and uncongenial to them.

Photography as a profession should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business−but only under very well defined conditions. The prime requisites−as summed up in my mind after long experience and thought−are these: The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail and a genius for hard work….

Ladies’ Home Journal was not the only magazine for which Johnston worked. Her words and pictures regularly appeared in many other popular illustrated magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Weekly.

In her quest to champion the rights of liberated women, Johnston often turned the camera on herself. One of her most famous pictures, taken in her Washing- ton studio in 1896, was a self portrait in which she sat in profile before a fireplace, showing her petticoats, a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other. In another of her self portraits she posed dressed in a man’s suit with hat and fake moustache and holding a penny-farthing bicycle. In fact, throughout her life and career, she took a great many self-portraits, many of which showed her using various cameras.

To give some idea of her workload, consider the year 1899, in which she spent six weeks photographing schools in Washington; served on the jury of the Philadelphia Salon of Photography; went to Italy to photograph Admiral George Dewey on his return from the Spanish-American War; and was commissioned to photograph African-American students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which produced some of her most memorable work. The following year, she was elected as one of two American women delegates at the International Congress of Photography, held in Paris, where she displayed around 150 photographs and spoke on behalf of American female photographers.

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Self-portrait, Johnston dressed as a man with penny-farthing bicycle, 1900

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Even in old age, Johnston retained her love of cameras and photography, c.1950

In the early years of the 20th century Johnston lived for a while in New York, after winning a commission to photograph the city’s New Theatre, designed by Carrère and Hastings, one of the most outstanding architectural firms in the United States, and the architects behind New York Public Library. In New York, she also co-owned a studio and lectured on business for women at New York University.

In 1913 The Garden Club of America was formed by 12 gardening clubs eager to promote garden design. Johnston had had previous experience of photographing prestigious gardens, including those at the White House. Now, in partnership with fellow photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt, she became involved in photographing club members’ gardens, working in monochrome and color. The autochrome process, introduced in 1907, was the first popular method of producing color images on glass plates coated with microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red, green and blue, then covered with a thin film of panchromatic emulsion. Johnston, who had previously hand-tinted monochrome lantern slides, now used the autochrome process to colorful effect.

Her pictures were published first in Country Life magazine, then in other prestigious markets that included The Garden Magazine, House Beautiful, House & Garden and Town & Country. Her published work influenced both professional landscape architects and amateur gardeners. Into the 1920s, her association with Hewitt now dissolved, Johnston continued her garden photography alone across America, from California to New England and then on to Europe.

Coupled with her garden photography came an interest in architecture, and she shot pictures of a great many fine buildings, including those falling into dis- repair. Her pictures were retained for posterity before the buildings were demolished or redeveloped. A major exhibition of her work displayed nearly 250 photographs, taken in Virginia, contrasting the decaying mansions of the rich with the shacks of poorer people.

As a result of her interest in architectural photography, the University of Virginia hired her to document architectural history in the State. From there, she moved on to a commission to document the deteriorating plantations of Louisiana. Commissions from eight other states followed, and eventually Johnston was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. Institutions who purchased her pictures included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Baltimore Museum of Art. All this led to her being one of the first contributors to the Pictorial Archives of American Architecture. Her pictures are still used today for research by architects and historians.

World War II forced Johnston to cut down on her love of traveling, and when the war ended in 1945, she retired to a home she owned in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Here, for the first time, she designed and planted her own garden. Two years later, she donated her prints and negatives to the Library of Congress. Today the Library holds around 20,000 of Johnston’s prints and 3,700 of her plate and film negatives.

Frances Benjamin Johnston−liberated woman and probably America’s first famous female photographer −died at her New Orleans home in 1952 at the age of 88.

Pictures are from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, to which Johnston bequeathed her works in perpetuity.

About the Author

John Wade
John Wade began his journalistic career on local newspapers, working his way from junior reporter to deputy editor. He was editor of Photography magazine in the UK for seven years before becoming a freelance writer and photographer 25 years ago. He has written more than 30 books on photographic history and photo techniques and has lately turned his attention to self-publishing his own books on classic cameras.