By VERNA POSEVER CURTIS
"Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900-1901," a traveling exhibition and book by the same title, offer a window into pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston's (1864-1952) milieu and the progress of American women at the turn of the 19th century. Library of Congress curators and conservators worked to restore the portraits, still lifes, genre scenes, allegories, and landscapes that comprise the exhibition's photographs. With the new interest garnered by the book and exhibition, women photographers of 1900 are poised to make photographic history once again.
In April 1900, the great Universal Exposition opened in Paris. Featuring nearly 30,000 exhibitions, it welcomed the new century on a grand scale. A series of international congresses convened in July to discuss a wide range of contemporary topics. Chicago's Mrs. Potter Palmer, a prominent supporter of women's rights, chose the women delegates from the United States, selecting Frances Benjamin Johnston of Washington, D.C., to represent women in photography. With only weeks to prepare before sailing to Europe, Johnston canvassed her photographic colleagues for their opinions about who were the best women photographers and wrote to more than 30 women across the country. Drawing on the photographs, biographical material and self-portraits that she received, she prepared an illustrated lecture, "American Women Photographers in 1900"; it consisted of 142 photographs by 29 female practitioners from the East, Midwest, California and Oregon.
That collection—now held within Johnston's photographic archives which are divided between the Library's Prints and Photographs Division and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History—contains a cross section of photographs by American women in 1900. It exemplifies a soft-focus pictorialist style and artistic subjects. It also represents realist expression, which was not then in vogue with the artistic or "pictorial" photographers, as they called themselves. In retrospect, Johnston's choices showed unusual foresight. Johnston, as photographer and advocate for women like herself, eventually became a major supporter of the Library of Congress collections, also leaving her own work, her letters, manuscripts and poster collections to the American people.
In 1900—60 years after the invention of the medium—photographers were asserting the right to take on the traditional subjects of art, including religious subjects, allegory, and genre, and to use the full creative potential of photography. American photographers began to debate fiercely the validity of this new art as a challenge to the traditional arts of drawing and printmaking and in opposition to its usage purely as a recording device or scientific tool. Soon, the photographic artist, then considered an "amateur," would eclipse the professional or commercial practitioner for attention on the world stage.
Into this atmosphere of heady argument raging in various photographic clubs, journal pages and public exhibitions came Johnston, one of the foremost women in the field. The only child of professional parents (her father was a civil servant in the U.S. Department of the Treasury and her mother a journalist and drama critic for a Baltimore newspaper), she began her own career as an illustrator but soon became fascinated with the camera. Johnston took private lessons from Thomas Smillie, the first curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. By 1889, she was the only female member of the Washington Camera Club and soon its delegate to a photographic convention in New York. Striking out boldly on her own, she earned a growing reputation in the professional and commercial world. As a portrait photographer, she became the first official White House photographer under Grover Cleveland, pursuing not only American presidents and their families, but also senators, diplomats and other government officials. And as a pioneering photojournalist—a field spawned by the growth industry of illustrated magazines for the mass market—she attracted a public following of her own. Female readers enjoyed her exciting reports in both words and pictures from unusual locations, including an underground coal mine.
At the same time, Johnston polished her reputation as an art photographer by exhibiting internationally and serving on the first all-photographer jury for the 1899 Second Philadelphia Salon. Alfred Stieglitz, the best-known of her male colleagues, stressed photography's value for the production of art, separating artistic expression from business and refusing to organize a display of American pictorialists at the Universal Exposition because they were not to be exhibited in the art pavilions. Johnston, on the other hand, took a broader view, championing photography both as a commercial means of livelihood for others of her sex as well as a form for artistic expression. Art and enterprise did not necessarily preclude one another, she believed; the amateur had the right to work at her craft while she earned a living. By 1900, Frances Johnston was highly respected by her female and male colleagues alike, both as a woman in the business community and an artist in photography.
The photographs that Johnston brought to Paris in 1900 were universally admired. Russian delegate Wiacheslav Izmilovich Sreznewsky, representing the Imperial Russian Technical Society, asked to borrow the works to show in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Because little of artistic merit in photography had been produced in his country since the 1880s, he touted "the young American women and their artistic taste and talent, as they have completely mastered the technical aspects of photography. They have succeeded in capturing unique images, and in passing from the real world to the world of ideas." After the fall showings in Russia, these same photographs were featured in January 1901 at the elegant Photo-Club de Paris, the most prestigious club in the French capital. Nonetheless, Johnston was never able to organize a showing of the women's work on American soil.
What had struck the delegates to the international photographic congress in 1900 as so novel remained unknown in the United States until the mid-1970s. During the wave of feminist awareness, the Women's Caucus of the College Art Association helped to rediscover women artists lost in institutional reserves. It co-sponsored an exhibition at the University of Maryland Art Gallery in 1979 titled, "Women Artists in Washington Collections." As part of that effort, curator Toby Quitslund organized a small exhibition of the photographers that Johnston had collected called "Her Feminine Colleagues: Photographs and Letters Collected by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1900."
Yet even after this initial exposure, Johnston's personal collection of the photographs by the women, which Johnston gave to the Library, remained in storage awaiting conservation care until several years ago. In 1999, the Prints and Photographs Division applied to the Terra Foundation for the Arts for a grant to conserve the 200 photographs in Johnston's personal collection. As part of their interest in outreach and education, the foundation generously supported the conservation effort and research on the little-known women photographers. Much care was taken by the conservators and the curators at the Library of Congress to restore the delicately toned photographs in colors ranging from sepia to light gray (some of which were set onto layers of mounting papers and asymmetrically placed on boards), and to display them in a manner similar to their original presentation.
The book and the exhibition about the work of these pioneering women photographers may finally bring them the attention that they have long deserved.
Verna Curtis is a curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division.