Sunday, December 22, 2013


Future photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston was born during the American Civil War. She grew up near Washington DC, the only child of wealthy parents. In the early 1880s Johnston studied art in Paris, then at the Art Students' League in New York (below).

Back in DC, she began training as a photographer in 1888. An album of early work survives (above) at the Library of Congress Pinkey's Blue Book, or, The Indigo Agonies of a Photographic Amateur.

By the 1890s Johnston had a proper photographic studio in Washington DC.

Above, the DC studio (with conspicuous syklight)  an exterior view from the back garden.

Below, Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1896 inside the studio space  a famous "Bohemian" pose (legs crossed, petticoats exposed, holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other) reproduced widely in later years as an icon of early feminist spirit.

Johnston was 32 years old in 1896 when she posed for the beer stein picture  and for the sepia portrait in male drag (above) with mustache, three-piece suit, and bicycle. At this period she was making cyanotypes like those below of the Potomac River and of a naked young man playing the flute among rocks along the shore.

Other surviving work from the apprentice years (below) includes a partly hand-colored view of the White House dated 1897, and an outdoor panorama of female dancers seemingly paying homage to Isadora Duncan.

The garden work and architectural photography that dominated Frances Benjamin Johnston's mature career did not properly begin until the years of the Great War, when she reached middle age. The photo-portrait below, taken in 1938, shows the established career woman and artist engulfed in foliage and roses.