Cover image for The woman behind the lens : the life and work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952
The woman behind the lens : the life and work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952
Berch, Bettina.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 171 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm

Format :


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TR140.J64 B47 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Within these boundaries, Johnston defined herself as an artist. Raised in an upper-middle-class household in Washington, D.C., she declined to "marry money" and instead made her living as an artist, although she enjoyed the cushion of her family's wealth and connections. In the course of her career, she moved through a series of interests, from portraiture to historic preservation. It is her restlessness, her resistance to easy categorizing, that makes this upper-class bohemian photographer such a fascinating subject herself.

Author Notes

Bettina Berch, author of Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes, is a freelance writer living in New York City.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Johnston (1865-1952) was a professional photographer who began her career in the mid-1880s. Her work involved a multiplicity of interests, from celebrity portraiture to social documentary, to estates and gardens, to architectural preservation. She is perhaps most well known today for her photographs made at the Hampton Institute in 1899 and exhibited at the Paris 1900 Exposition. They were again exhibited and published as The Hampton Album by the Museum of Modern Art when it received a set of images in 1966. However, in her own time, she was a much heralded photographer whose widely reproduced photographs were identified with various segments of society, including the circle of President Theodore Roosevelt. This is a strict chronological biography and study of her work rather than a pictorial monograph, with a few carefully selected photographs to support the text. A careful reader will learn much here, but a larger sampling of her images is required for a complete study. Writing from the perspective of feminist economic concerns, Berch also addresses the possible lesbian relationship between Johnston and her one-time business partner. In addition, Berch relates Johnston to the major male and female photographers of the day, including those surrounding Alfred Stieglitz. An informative book. General readers; undergraduates through faculty. P. C. Bunnell; Princeton University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. 1
1. The Birth of a Bohemian: 1864-1885p. 7
2. A Studio of Her Own: Washington, D.C., 1885-1900p. 14
3. Showing America to the World: Paris, 1900p. 39
4. To New York and a New Partnership: 1900-1917p. 70
5. "The Interpreter of Gardens": 1918-1928p. 91
6. Johnston's Ante-Antebellum South: 1928-1944p. 108
7. The "Octo-Geranium" Puts Down Roots: New Orleans, 1945-1952p. 131
Concluding Thoughtsp. 143
Notesp. 153
Bibliographyp. 163
Indexp. 169