Frances Benjamin Johnson

Frances Benjamin Johnson

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Frances Benjamin Johnson was born in Grafton, West Virginia in 1864. She studied art at Notre-Dame Convent, Maryland (1881-83) and Academie Julian, Paris (1983-85). On her return to the United States she attended the Art Students League in Washington, where she began experimenting with photography.

Johnson opened her own photographic studio in Washington in 1890. She received commissions from several publications and photographed all the leading politicians based in Washington including Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Taft.

Johnson was a strong advocate of women photographers. He views on the subject, What Women Can Do With a Camera, was published in the Ladies' Home Journal, in September, 1897. She also organised the exhibition of twenty-eight American women photographers at museums in Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow (1900-1901).

In the early 1900s Johnson became particularly interested in architectural photography. Later she concentrated on photographing gardens and estates. Frances Johnson died in New Orleans in 1952.

Frances Benjamin Johnston History. Class in American History 1899-1900

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Early Life and Career

An only child, Francis Benjamin Johnston was born in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1864 to affluent parents. She was raised in Washington, D.C. where her parents moved soon after she was born. In the nation's capitol, her parents were active in the high-ranking political and social circles, and their connections, particularly her mother's, would greatly benefit Johnston's education and subsequent career as a photographer. Also, Johnston drew a great deal of inspiration from the independent female role models in her family: her free-willed Aunt Nin and her mother, who worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Johnston graduated from the Notre Dame Academy near Baltimore in 1884, where she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. Her parents' connections to the Washington elite enabled her to study art in France, at the prestigious Academie Julien in Paris. She was one of the first women ever to attend the school. In 1885, she returned to Washington at age 21, planning to make a living as an artist. For awhile, she drew illustrations for magazines and sometimes wrote columns. But she soon became more interested in photography because she felt it resulted in more accurate depictions than painting or drawing. Again, her mother's connections served her well, as she soon began studying photography under Thomas Smillie at the Smithsonian Institution. Smillie taught the aspiring photographer how to use a camera and work inside a dark room.

It was not long before Johnston, who received her first camera from family friend George Eastman, began establishing a name for herself as a professional photographer. As her reputation developed, she also became an advocate of women's involvement in photography, which was then a field that was dominated by men like the famous Civil War pictorial chronicler Mathew Brady. She was the first female member of the Capitol Camera Club. At the time, photography, or "pictorialism," as it was called, was a relatively new field, and its application was mainly for journalistic purposes and not as an art form. As her skills developed, Johnston would incorporate both journalistic and artistic elements into her work, which would result in a distinctive style that greatly influenced the field and made her famous.

Her mother's own journalistic activities especially benefited Johnston early in her career. Working as a newspaper reporter, her mother wrote about congressional activities as well as Washington inside information, and she knew all of the important people in the nation's capital. She was also related to President Grover Cleveland's wife. This helped open the doors of the White House for Johnston. From the 1880s and into the 1910s, she would take pictures during the administrations of Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This resulted in an outstanding and historically invaluable pictorial document that depicted the members of the various first families, as well as White House staff members and visitors.


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Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864 - 1952)

Born in West Virginia, Frances Benjamin Johnston (January 16, 1864–May 16, 1952) grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father worked for the government and her mother was a newspaper correspondent. After attending a nearby convent school, she studied drawing and painting in Paris. She returned to the United States in 1885 and planned to become a writer and use her art training to illustrate her stories. Intrigued by photography, she worked for a commercial photographer and established her own studio in the 1890s. She incorporated elements of journalism and art into her work, developing the distinctive style for which she would become famous.

Johnston established her reputation taking portraits of the prominent and political elite in Washington, D.C., but she also photographed factory workers and coal miners. She was commissioned in 1899 to photograph the students and campus of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), and the images were displayed at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, where she also organized an exhibition of female photographers. Freethinking and strong-willed, Johnston advocated women's inclusion in photography, a field dominated by men.

In 1927 Johnston photographed Chatham, an eighteenth-century manor on the Rappahannock River. Intrigued by early southern architecture, she began taking pictures of historic buildings in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area, and also provided the images for Colonial Churches in Virginia (1930). During the 1930s she received grants to document hundreds of Virginia's historic structures, as well as those in other southern states. Thousands of Johnston's photographs are part of the collections at the Library of Congress.

2003 Virginia Women in History honoree, Virginia Foundation for Women and Delta Kappa Gamma Society International.

Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs

Read recipes for "Snow Eggs" by James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's chef, and shrimp curry by Zephyr Wright, a cook for President Lyndon Johnson.

Stories of Food and Drink

In the early 1800s, African Americans cornered the market in the catering business in Philadelphia. Historians Sharron Conrad and William Woys Weaver talk about how these catering families became the arbiters of taste for the wealthy white community.

From an oral history recording, Zephyr Wright describes how she helped President Lyndon Johnson curb his voracious appetite.

William Seale delves into the little-known history of liquor in the White House, from Madison to Bush.

A list of kitchen equipment written out by James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's chef, before Hemings left Monticello. University of Virginia hide caption

A list of kitchen equipment written out by James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's chef, before Hemings left Monticello.

Dolly Johnson, cook for President Benjamin Harrison in the early 1890s. Johnson, who had cooked for the Harrison family in Indiana, was summoned to the White House by President Harrison to replace Madame Petronard, a French chef. One observer noted: "The President likes the plain dishes of Dolly Johnson . better than the complicated French menus of her predecessor . " Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress hide caption

Dolly Johnson, cook for President Benjamin Harrison in the early 1890s. Johnson, who had cooked for the Harrison family in Indiana, was summoned to the White House by President Harrison to replace Madame Petronard, a French chef. One observer noted: "The President likes the plain dishes of Dolly Johnson . better than the complicated French menus of her predecessor . "

Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress

The White House kitchen, seen in 1901, was used for main events and more formal entertaining. The round table at left is set for a staff meal. The presence of electricity, introduced to the White House in 1891, can be seen by the wiring placed along the ceiling. Library of Congress hide caption

The White House kitchen, seen in 1901, was used for main events and more formal entertaining. The round table at left is set for a staff meal. The presence of electricity, introduced to the White House in 1891, can be seen by the wiring placed along the ceiling.

Vietta Garr worked as Harry Truman's cook in Independence, Mo. When Truman became president, he requested that Garr come to work in Washington, D.C., not as a cook but to instruct his staff on how to cook the "Missouri way." She was the granddaughter of Emily Fisher, an ex-slave who ran a hotel on Independence Square. Truman Library hide caption

Vietta Garr worked as Harry Truman's cook in Independence, Mo. When Truman became president, he requested that Garr come to work in Washington, D.C., not as a cook but to instruct his staff on how to cook the "Missouri way." She was the granddaughter of Emily Fisher, an ex-slave who ran a hotel on Independence Square.

Luci Johnson (left), one of the President Lyndon Johnson's daughters, speaks to Zephyr Wright during the White House cook's birthday party in 1965. Don Stoderl/LBJ Library hide caption

Luci Johnson (left), one of the President Lyndon Johnson's daughters, speaks to Zephyr Wright during the White House cook's birthday party in 1965.

More from Hidden Kitchens

See more photos, recipes and stories from the slave gardens of Monticello, W.E.B. DuBois' writings on African-American caterers in Philadelphia, black chefs in the White House, and President Eisenhower's passion for cooking.

Some kitchen stories are complicated — full of mystery and missing pieces — the truth hidden by time. No photographs to capture them, little historical record to go on. "Hercules and Hemings" is one of these stories. In this piece, Hidden Kitchens turns its focus to the president's kitchen and to some of the first cooks to feed the Founding Fathers — the enslaved chefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

"It was Hercules who really began this long connection of presidents and African- American cooks," says Sharron Conrad, historian of African-American cuisine. She began researching this connection for her article The President's Kitchen: African American Cooks in the White House. Hercules, one of George Washington's slaves, came to be the chef of Washington's kitchen at Mt. Vernon and later in the nation's early capital in Philadelphia. Hercules, Cesar — names of Rome and antiquity were often bestowed upon slaves along with the last names of their owners.

There is a portrait believed to be of Hercules painted by Gilbert Stuart, the same artist who did the most famous portrait of George Washington. Hercules gazes out across history, "a large, cinnamon-colored man in immaculate chef whites with a kerchief tied around his neck and a toque," says Jessica Harris, culinary historian and author of The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking. Harris led us to this story when we heard her give a talk entitled "Feeding the Founders."

Black Cooks in the White House

As we began to dig into the lives of Hercules and Hemings, the little-known stories of black cooks in the White House throughout history began to surface. Dolly Johnson cooked for President and Mrs. Harrison. Johnson had been the Harrisons' cook in Indianapolis and was "called to the White House sometime around 1890 to replace French chef, Madame Petronard," Conrad says.

Mary Campbell cooked for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Harry and Margaret Truman brought Vietta Garr with them to the White House. Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson came to the White house with Zephyr Wright. Mrs. Johnson hired her when Wright was a home economics student at the historically black Wiley College in Texas. She cooked for the Johnsons for 27 years in Texas and Washington, D.C.

An oral history was recorded with Wright and we found it at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. In a lilting, gentle voice, Ms. Wright tells her stories:

"The first night that I met President Johnson, he was late as usual. He was always late for meals . Now there have been times that he'd get on the phone himself and call me and ask me how long would it take to get something ready for the whole Cabinet and sometimes he'd walk in with them and you didn't even know he's coming. And I've seen a time that I've fixed a meal in 10 minutes for 25 or 30 people."

President Johnson's awareness of the difficulties Wright experienced traveling through the segregated South — the hardship and humiliation of not being served in restaurants on the road, the difficulty of finding accommodations — are believed to have influenced his work on civil rights reform and legislation.

"You can't even consider the history of the White House without realizing that the common denominator of White House life is the dinner table," says historian William Seale, author of The President's House. "When George Washington took office, he wasn't the king, he wasn't the sovereign. He was a combination of head of state and prime minister. It never happened before nobody ever had one of those. So it was very delicate with him how to proceed in terms of diplomatic tradition. So food became very important."

Hercules, Washington's slave chef, may have been trained by Martha Washington. It was Martha who brought slaves into Washington's home when the two married. Martha was known for her table and for her "Great Cake" (40 eggs, four pounds of butter, four pounds of sugar, five pounds of flour, five pounds of fruit, a half-pint of wine and some fresh brandy).

"A lot of it was touch and go in those kitchens," Seale says. "Just imagine putting a cake in a pot with a bigger pot around it with coals in it and knowing when to take it out. Of course, there were no thermometers the old cooks had to know that. They had to have an eye for that."

Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, remembered Hercules as "highly accomplished and proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States." Seale called him "the commander of the kitchen. He did everything, all the souffles, almond pudding, trifles, fricassee chicken, kidney, etc."

Hercules had eight assistants — stewards, butlers, undercooks, waiters. He cooked in a huge fireplace — hearth cooking. The fireplace was full of a series of iron pots, hooks and cranes to lift and move the kettles. The job was long and hard, especially in the hot summer. The cooks and kitchen crew had to build the fire, burn it down, gauge the temperature by hand and gather fuel to keep the long-burning fires fed.

Hercules is described as being immaculate and impeccable. Harris, the historian, says he was noted for being a "dandy." He walked through the streets of Philadelphia in a velvet waistcoat and a gold-handled cane. He probably got the money to buy his clothes by selling leftovers and kitchen waste, a privilege sometimes given those in special positions.

Hercules was well known around town and people would follow him as he walked through the market.

"Philadelphia had one of the largest open-air markets in the world," says William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author. "The boats came in from Cuba three days a week, so there were bananas and pineapples, and if you had the money, you could get practically anything you wanted. George Washington loved an apple that came in the fall it's known as Washington's favorite. Big yellow apple, it's now unfortunately extinct. He would send his people out in the market and buy every apple out there. And the other Philadelphians in their diaries and letters grumbled about this president who's hoarding these wonderful dessert apples."

When Washington was getting ready to leave Philadelphia to return to Mt. Vernon, Hercules escaped. Washington sent out search parties and offered rewards. Hercules was never found.

Harris says, "A French visitor to Mt. Vernon asked one of Hercules' daughters how she felt about her father running away. She replied, 'I miss my father, but I know that he is free and so I am happy for him.'"

James Hemings

Many people have heard of Sally Hemings and her suspected relationship with Thomas Jefferson, which, Harris notes, "is increasingly becoming not alleged but a matter of DNA fact." But most of us do not know of her brother, James Hemings, who was also a slave to Jefferson.

In 1784, Jefferson was appointed minister to France and left Monticello to negotiate treaties of commerce for the new republic. He took with him his body servant, 19-year-old James Hemings, to master the French style of cooking. Hemings apprenticed with well-known French caterers and a pastry chefs.

"James went from the hearth cooking that was the good solid country cooking of Monticello into this complex multi-service, class-oriented cooking in France," Harris says. He learned how to cook on a potager, a stew-holed stove, and he learned the art of saucing things.

It was the time of the French Revolution and there was great upheaval in Paris.

"As the society was democratizing itself, so was the food," Harris says. "We see in Paris the development of restaurants, which comes from the French word restaure, to restore. It was food coming out of the chateau, coming out of the royal kitchens, becoming more democratic. At the same time, the Royal Family is falling. Jefferson's enslaved chef, James Hemings, was there to witness and be a part of these changes."

Hemings assumed the role of chef de cuisine in Jefferson's kitchen on the Champs-Elysees, earning $48 a year. Under French law, Hemings could have claimed his freedom at any point. There was no slavery in France at that time. But he didn't, and the reason remains a mystery.

Hemings returned with Jefferson to the United States along with copper pots, wine, olive oils, recipes for ice cream and seeds to be planted in the Monticello garden. A potager was installed in the kitchen.

In 1793, Hemings petitioned Jefferson for his freedom. Jefferson consented upon one condition, "if the said James shall go with me to Monticello and shall continue until he shall have taught such persons as I shall place under him for the purpose to be a good cook . he shall thereupon be made free." Three years later, having fulfilled the terms of the "manumission" agreement by teaching his brother, Peter Hemings, the cooking techniques he had learned in France and at home, James Hemings became a free man.

"He departed Monticello leaving behind him only a well-written inventory of the kitchen and some recipes, and other writing in his own had," Conrad says. Many of the enslaved cooks and others in plantation kitchens throughout the South were never taught to read and absorbed recipes for French and European cuisine by having them read to them.

What happened to James Hemings after he left Monticello is a mystery.

"He was asked to return to cook when Jefferson was in the White House, but he refused," Harris says. "Beyond that, we don't know."

"James Hemings received his freedom in the same year that Hercules escaped," Conrad says. "Hemings and Hercules are both in Philadelphia at the same time. In a city with only 210 slaves, surely Hercules and James Hemings were each aware of the other's existence. It would not surprise me in the least if James' freedom may have helped inspire Hercules to take on his own freedom."

Story Credits

Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson) with Laura Folger, Nathan Dalton, Eloise Melzer, and Moira Bartel. Mixed by Jim McKee.

Frances Benjamin Johnson - History

This collection has use restrictions. For details, please see the restrictions.

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the World Wide Web. See the Duplication Policy section for more information.

Cupola House, Edenton, North Carolina P006_58 (Cupola) , in the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (P0006), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Expand/collapse Collection Overview

Size About 2,280 images (3.57 linear feet in 9 boxes and five drawers in map case)
Abstract The collection of white photojournalist and artist, Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), consists of black-and-white photographic prints relating to historic structures of architectural interest throughout North Carolina. Images were taken from 1935 to 1938.
Creator Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952.
Boone, Samuel Moyle.
Language English
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Expand/collapse Information For Users

  • Accession numbers 1676–2533: In the summer of 1949, Samuel M. Boone of Chapel Hill made photographic prints from Frances Benjamin Johnston's original negatives. The University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill arranged with Johnston for Boone to move into her home on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and use her darkroom to print the images.
  • Accession numbers 2534–2742: A gift of Charles A. and Ruth C. Cannon in 1953, this group of photographs comprise 209 8x10-inch sepia prints made, according to the deed of gift, "through the interest and aid of the donors." Materials included in this group have a stamp that reads: "Frances Benjamin Johnston, Arts Club of Washington, 2017 Eye Street Northwest, Washington D.C."
  • Accession numbers 2757–2968: More than 200 oversized prints originally given by John Sprunt Hill to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which transferred them to the North Carolina Collection in 1952.

Expand/collapse Subject Headings

The following terms from Library of Congress Subject Headings suggest topics, persons, geography, etc. interspersed through the entire collection the terms do not usually represent discrete and easily identifiable portions of the collection--such as folders or items.

Clicking on a subject heading below will take you into the University Library's online catalog.

  • Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952.
  • Women photographers--United States.
  • Airlie (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Arden (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Asheville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Aventon (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Bath (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Bear Poplar (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Beaufort (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Beaufort County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Beaufort County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Blowing Rock (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Brunswick (Brunswick County, N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Brunswick County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Buck Hill (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Buncombe County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Burke County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Cabarrus County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Caldwell County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Carteret County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Caswell County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Catawba River (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Cedar Point (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Centerville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Chapel Hill (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Charlotte (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • China Grove (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Chowan County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Cleveland County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Columbus (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Concord (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Cornelius (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Craven County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Crowells (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Cumberland County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Currituck County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Dallas (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Davidson (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Davidson County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Davie County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Denver (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Duplin County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Durham (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Durham County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Edenton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Edgecombe County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Elizabeth City (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Elmwood (Iredell County, N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Fairntosh Plantation (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Fayetteville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Flat Rock (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Fletcher (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Forsyth County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Fort Bragg (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Franklin County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Gaston County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Gastonia (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Gibsonville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Guilford County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Halifax (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Halifax County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hampstead (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Happy Valley (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Harvey's Neck (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Henderson (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Henderson County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hertford (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hertford County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hickory Nut Gap (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • High Point (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hillsborough (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Hoke County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Huntersville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Inez (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Iredell County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Iron Station (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Jackson (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Jamestown (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Kings Mountain (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Lake Lure (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Lake Phelps (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Lincoln County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Lincolnton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Littleton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Louisburg (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Marion (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • McDowell County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Mecklenburg County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Mills Spring (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Morganton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Mount Holly (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Mount Mourne (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Mount Olive (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Moyock (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Muddy Creek (Burke County, N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Murfeesboro (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Nash County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Nashville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • New Bern (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • New Hanover County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • New Market Township (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Nixonton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Northampton County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Old Sparta (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Old Town (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Orange County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Pasquotank County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Pender County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Perquimans County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Polk County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Raleigh (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Randolph County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rockingham County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rocky Ford (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rocky Mount (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rowan County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rugby (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Rutherford County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Salisbury (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Saluda (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • South Mills (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Sowers Ferry (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Spencer (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Tarboro (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Taylors Cross Roads (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Townsville (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Tryon (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Tyrrell County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Valle Crucis (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Vance County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Wake County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Warren County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Warrenton (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Washington (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Watauga County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Wayne County (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Wells Crossroads (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Wentworth (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Westminster (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Williamsboro (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Wilmington (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Winston-Salem (N.C.)--Photographs.
  • Yanceyville (N.C.)--Photographs.

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Expand/collapse Biographical Information

Frances Benjamin Johnston was born 15 January 1864 in Rochester, New York. Her family later moved to Washington, District of Columbia. In 1882, at the age of 18, she attended Notre Dame Convent in Govanston, Maryland. The following year Johnston departed for Paris, France, to study studied art at the Académie Julian. After her return from Paris in 1885, Johnston enrolled in the Art Students' League in Washington.

Johnston's interest in art shifted to journalism, her mother's occupation, and she began to make illustrations for newspapers. She eventually turned to photography because she thought it was "the more accurate machine" and studied under Thomas William Smillie, head of the Division of Photography at the Smithsonian Institution. Johnston worked on many important projects during her storied career, including the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South between 1933 and 1940. The survey was a systematic record of the early buildings and gardens in Maryland, Virgina, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi.

Johnston's original negatives for the project are at the Library of Congress, which has become "the principal repository" of her writings and photographs. The Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress includes approximately 20,000 photographs and 3,700 glass and film negatives. Images in the collection span the period 1864-1940, but the majority date between 1897 and 1927. In 1936, the American Council of Learned Societies paid Johnston $3,500 to photograph early North Carolina architecture.

She had three mentors for the project: from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Albert Ray Newsome, North Carolina historian and former history department chair and Howard Odum, sociologist of the American South, professor, and founder of the Sociology Department, the School of Public Welfare, the Department of City and Regional Planning, and the Institute for Research in Social Science and from Duke University, William Boyd, history professor and first Director of the Libraries.

Frances Benjamin Johnston died in 1952. Source: The Woman Behind the Lens: the Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952 , by Bettina Berch. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

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This collection contains 1,100 photographs created by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) between 1935 and 1938 that document historic structures of architectural interest in forty-eight counties throughout North Carolina. The majority of the images in this collection were created from the original negatives in 1941. Many of the photographs subsequently appeared in The Early Architecture of North Carolina by Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas T. Waterman, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1941.

Johnston was a trained artist who turned her talents to photography and became one of the first prominent female photojournalists in the United States. After studying art at the Académie Julian in Paris, France and at the Art Students' League in Washington, DC, Ms. Johnston took up an interest in journalism and began doing illustrations for newspapers in 1885. She eventually turned to photography because she thought it was "the more accurate machine" and studied under Thomas William Smillie, head of the Division of Photography at the Smithsonian Institution. During her long and successful career Johnston took tens of thousands of photographs of scenes and events all over the United States with an emphasis on Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The majority of the materials in this collection are stored in record center boxes (boxes 1-9) and oversized items are stored in five map case drawers (boxes 10-14).

Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Garden Legacy: New Finds from the Archives

In 1897 in an article published in the Ladies Home Journal, the female photographer and businesswoman Frances Benjamin Johnston offered a guide to her success in an essay titled ”What a Woman Can Do With a Camera.” As it turns out, if the woman happens to be Frances Benjamin Johnston, well then, she can do quite a lot.

Over her lifetime, Johnston amassed a body of work that included more than 1,100 glass lantern slide images of public and private gardens. Created at a time when color was not readily rendered from the camera, colorists painstakingly hand-painted each of her slides, known as glass lantern. She used them to deliver lectures on a travel circuit that covered topics including, Old World gardens, the problems of small gardens and flower folklore during the 1920s and 30s. Her gorgeous images provide a unique glimpse into the backyards of some of her wealthiest patrons, including Frederick Forrest Peabody, George Dupont Pratt and Edith Wharton. Recently, a researcher identified 23 (and counting) unlabeled images in the Smithsonian collections as works of Johnston’s, helping shed light on the prolific career of an exceptional woman and the complexity of her work.

Johnston studied art in Paris and learned photography here at the Smithsonian under the tutelage of Thomas Smillie, the Institution’s first photographer. During her lifetime, garden photography was mostly ignored by the art institutions. As Ansel Adams built a successful career with his images of American landscapes, Johnston struggled just to get her name published alongside her photographs in the home and garden magazines of the era.

“Garden photography, as a genre, is not one that people, even in art history, really think about,” says Kristina Borrman, a research intern with the Archives of American Gardens. Borrman, who discovered the cache of Johnston’s images in the Archives, says garden photography represents another side of the American narrative and often reveals the fault lines of class division. Rather than constructing the myth of the frontier, “it’s the meticulously mannered frontier, it’s the manipulated space and that is such a beautiful story, too.”

Though Johnston left her collection to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian acquired many of her images through a 1992 donation from the Garden Club of America that included 3,000 glass lantern slides from the 1920s and 30s, as well as 22,000 35mm slides of contemporary gardens.

Johnston decided to dedicate her career to garden photography after working as a portraitist and photojournalist. (Library of Congress, 1917)

Ever the business woman, Johnston maximized her income whenever possible, writing to notable society members in each city advertising her photographic services. These commissioned images from her wealthy patrons document the lavish gardens of the era, from country estates to urban retreats.

She was able to capture the height of America’s glamorous Roaring Twenties through a lens pointed at America’s backyard. Though she used her images as teaching tools, Johnston understood their potential to tell a story of an ephemeral moment in history.

The slides range from grand boulevards of hedges and manicured blooms to yards bursting with wildflowers. Depending on the tastes of the colorists, glass lantern slides could be painted as meticulous replications of the scene or fantastical departures, or as Museum Specialist at the Archives Kelly Crawford says, “sometimes the roses are red and sometimes the roses are blue.” Projected on a screen, the painted slides offered a rich way to view the images for lectures while the black and white negatives could be easily reproduced for brochures.

Borrman’s critical role in identifying the Johnston’s images in the collections builds more narrative to the garden photographer’s story. After Sam Watters helped research and organize the Library of Congress’ 1,100 images, Borrman was able to use his research to pair hand-colored slides from the Archives with their black and white negative counterparts in the Library of Congress’ extensive collection which includes 20,000 prints and 3,700 glass and film negatives from Johnston.

“It’s very cool to be able to contextualize things in that way,” says Borrman, “because we have all of these random garden images from her but to see, ‘Oh, I know this was likely from her ‘Gardens of the West’ lecture series and this one is from ‘Tales Old Houses Tell.’”

Johnston’s interest in recreating an experience, whether it be in the luscious hand painting that accompanied the glass lantern slides or the narrative that guided each lecture, led her into other media. Borrman explains when Johnston went out West, “There were two things she was interested in in California one was to make films of gardens, moving through a garden space but she never found the right contacts to do that.” And the other, was to make art from movie stills. She even had her own logo ready to go, but that, too was never to be.

Once friends with famed photographer Alfred Steiglitz, Johnston’s commercial savvy elicited his derision. (Library of Congress)

Instead, Johnston used her contacts to partner with Carnegie and the Library of Congress to document the great architecture of the South. Like her work photographing garden estates, Johnston’s time in the South helped capture architectural styles many felt were facing extinction, particularly after the Great Depression.

Many of the images in the Archives come from that period. Borrman says they are particularly incredible because they include, not just elaborate homes, “but also vernacular architecture, gardens and landscape architecture.” Borrman has found images of churches, barns and other such structures.

Borrman says Johnston’s subject matter often revealed class tensions within America, a legacy likely far from the minds of garden lecture audiences. Movements such as City Beautiful and historical preservationism could reflect a proprietary sense of cultural ownership that those in power could impose on the urban landscape. What should be saved and what should be demolished were decisions few could participate in and Johnston’s work played a role in these conversations.

She helped spread the gospel of beautiful spaces from the wealthiest corners of the country. But her work has a doubleness.

Within art history, Borrman says, Johnston’s most prominent legacy is work she did prior to her garden photography. Having worked as a photojournalist, Johnston had a series of pieces from Washington, D.C. public schools of students engaged in classroom activities as well as the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where Booker T. Washington attended school. Borrman says these images have long been critiqued as racist studies.

“And certainly there are problems with those photographs but there are other stories in there, too,” says Borrman. For example, Borrman has been connecting the many images of children learning in nature and about nature from the series with her later work in garden photography and the broader movement of experimental learning. Another fraught social movement, experimental learning tried to place students in contact with nature. Seen as a solution to the ills of urban life, it was a facet of a collection of Progressive ideals that sought to civilize and improve the lives of the urban poor.

The Janitor’s Garden, from a The City Gardens Club of New York City 1922 photograph exhibition at the New York Camera Club. (Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

Years later, working for the New York City Garden Club, Johnston participated in an exhibition of city gardens. ”There’s some strangeness to that exhibit, too,” says Borrman. One of the photos on display was Johnston’s famous image of a janitor’s basement apartment entryway, overflowing with greenery. The man was honored at the exhibit as part of the club’s effort to encourage even those with few resources to craft window box gardens. “He was awarded this prize at the very same exhibit that someone who bought tenement buildings at Turtle Bay and recreated a backyard space and created this beautiful garden was also given a prize,” says Borrman. “So someone that had kicked out these poor people of their homes was awarded a prize in the same space as this janitor.”

Beautification projects routinely come back into fashion, says Crawford, citing Lady Bird Johnson’s highway efforts. The tensions prove perennial as well. Neighborhood improvements come with the specter of gentrification. The impeccable beauty of Johnston’s glass lantern slide operates on all these levels.

Borrman matches colored slides in the Archives with negatives in the Library of Congress. Woodberry Forest, Virginia. (Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1932 Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection)

“There’s something that I love about her photographs that speak to these manipulated spaces and look so delicately constructed,” says Borrman.

For more on Frances Benjamin Johnston, we recommend the new book Gardens for a Beautiful America by Sam Watters.

About Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

Vintage: U.S. Classroom Scenes (late 19th Century)

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) was born during the American Civil War. Her 60-year career as a photographer began with portrait, news, and documentary work then turned to a focus on contemporary architecture and gardens, culminating in a survey of historic buildings in the southern United States.

In the 1880s, Johnston studied art in Paris and then returned home to Washington, DC, where she learned photography. She quickly established a national reputation as a professional photographer and businesswoman, with growing success in both the art and commercial worlds.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, as one of the first photojournalists, she provided images to the Bain News Service syndicate and wrote illustrated articles for many magazines. Her active roles in pictorialist photo exhibitions and world’s fairs reflect her high level of energy and determination as well as her exceptional photographic talent.

An interest in progressive education resulted in pioneering projects to document students at public schools in Washington, DC the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama the Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Outdoor class in botany, Washington, DC, ca. 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va., ca. 1898 – 11 students in uniform playing guitars, banjos, mandolins, and cello. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Louis Firetail (Sioux, Crow Creek), wearing tribal clothing, giving a presentation in an American history class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, 1899-1900. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

A class in dressmaking, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Classroom scenes in Washington, D.C. public schools – outdoor exercise with rods – 3rd Division, ca. 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

History class at the Tuskegee Institute. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Students of 8th Division school using rulers, yardsticks, and measuring tape in school yard, Washington, DC, ca. 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

School children learning a dance in a school yard, Washington, DC, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Schoolgirls doing calisthenics. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Elementary school class on Native American Culture. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Female students exercising with dumbbells, Western High School, Washington, DC, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Girls in a science laboratory at Eastern High School, Washington, DC, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Thanksgiving Day lesson at Whittier, 1899-1900. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

6 girls in art class, drawing at easels, Eastern High School, Washington, DC, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

African American schoolgirls with teacher, learning to cook on a wood stove in classroom, 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Women painting at easels in a class at the Art Students’ League, Washington, DC, 1889. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Isadora Duncan’s dance students, early 1900s. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Machine shop class, Washington, DC, ca. 1899. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston

The Woman Behind the Lens : The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952

Try to picture Mark Twain, or Uncle Remus, or even Theodore Roosevelt. More than likely, you have a Frances Benjamin Johnston image in your mind. Johnston was a significant—and arresting—figure in early twentieth-century photography. Beautifully illustrated with forty examples of her work, this first full-length biography explores the surprising range of Johnston's talent, as well as her high-stepping, controversial character.

Johnston produced a good deal of the usual society portraiture of the time—including a nude photograph of a debutante that prompted the girl's outraged father to file a lawsuit—but she was also an important photodocumentarian. Students of African American history can reexamine life at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) or Tuskegee using hundreds of photographs made by Johnston at the turn of the last century.

Through Johnston's work we can see 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. Johnston's major project on early vernacular architecture of the American South preserves scores of buildings that no longer exist except on her film.

However, while many are familiar with Johnston's photographs, most know little about the woman who made them. And without the context of her life, which Bettina Berch gives us in all its contradiction and color, Johnston's subjects may seem inchoate, her choices part feminist and part reactionary, part radical and part retrograde.

Johnston entered photography when the field was relatively new, and professional gender boundaries were still being defined. The invention of lighter equipment and changing technologies in developing meant that photography could be moved from the studio and darkroom—male provinces—out into the street or the home. But the repressiveness of late nineteenth-century society sometimes cast a shadow: there were a host of prescriptions governing proper female behavior, and certainly the sensuality of the human body as a subject caused many to argue that this new art form should remain a male preserve.

Watch the video: The Life and Works of Frances Benjamin Johnston