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Frances Benjamin Johnston - Biographical Overview and Chronology

Prints and Photographs Division

Biographical Overview

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.
Johnston photographing on a balcony of the State, War and Navy Building
Johnston photographing on a balcony of the State, War and Navy Building, 1888
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.

Johnston counted presidents, diplomats, and other government officials among her portrait clients, while in her personal life she travelled in more Bohemian circles.

Johnston in her studio, 1896
Johnston in her studio, 1896

Johnston and Admiral Dewey on the deck of the U.S.S. Olympia
Johnston and Admiral Dewey on the deck of the U.S.S. Olympia, 1899.
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.

A Kodak creates a sensation
A Kodak creates a sensation, 1890s

Johnston with camera, 1930s
Johnston with camera, ca. 1935
In the 1910s, Johnston began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography, working for a time with photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt in New York City. Johnston also traveled widely in the United States and Europe to research and lecture about the gardens that she photographed.

By the late 1920s, Johnston turned her focus to the systematic photographic documentation of historic buildings in the South. She traveled thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, which aimed to help preserve both vernacular and high style structures. Her vivid building portraits appeared in exhibitions and illustrated several major books. In the 1940s, she moved to New Orleans where she died in 1952

Johnston holding camera, between 1940 and 1952
Johnston holding camera, ca. 1950


Note: The full Johnston Collection is described with many online images in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog: // Selected groups of material from the collection are highlighted in the chronology.

1864 Born Frances Benjamin Johnston on January 15th in Grafton, WV, to Frances Antoinette Benjamin and Anderson Doniphan Johnston
by 1875 Moved with her family to Washington, DC; mother wrote articles for newspapers in Washington and Baltimore; father worked at the Treasury Department
1883 Graduated from Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies in Govanstown, MD (now part of Baltimore City)
1883-85 Studied drawing and painting at the Académie Julian in Paris, France.
By 1886 Returned to DC and studied at the Art Students’ League (later incorporated in the Corcoran Gallery School), enjoying a Bohemian life
1888? Began to study photography with Thomas Smillie at the Smithsonian Institution
1889-1910s Wrote photo-illustrated articles for Demorest’s Family Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Weekly, Ladies’ Home Journal, and other periodicals. Subjects included the U.S. Mint, mines, cathedrals, steamships, and portraits

Worked as a news photographer for George Grantham Bain, NY, who ran the first news photo syndicate in the United States

Accepted as unofficial “court photographer” with access to the White House during the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt administrations

1891 Exhibited photographs at her first show—the Cosmos Club in DC

Recognized as a pictorialist photographer and exhibited at art galleries in New York City

1892-93 Photographed the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL, as one of the official photographers 
By 1895 Opened her own commercial studio behind her parent’s house at 1332 V Street NW, Washington, DC, specializing in portraits

Published her photographs in illustrated books about the White House and Mammoth Cave

1897 Wrote "What A Woman Can Do With A Camera," for Ladies Home Journal
1899 Documented Washington, DC, public schools
Documented Admiral Dewey and USS Olympia crew, as they returned from the Spanish-American War
Documented Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA
1900 Participated in the Universal Exposition, Paris, France; won a gold medal for her photographs of public school education in DC; won a grand prize for her photographs of the Hampton Institute

Organized exhibition and lectured on art photos by women for the International Congress of Photography, held in Paris during the exposition

1901 Took the last photograph of President McKinley, shortly before his assassination at the Buffalo Exposition
1902 Documented Tuskegee Institute, Alabama
1903 Documented open-pit iron mining operations in Mesabi Range, MN
1904 Photographed at St. Louis Exposition; member of the liberal arts jury
1905 While traveling in Europe, visited the Lumières and learned the new color photography process called autochrome
1909 Received first architectural commission, photographing the New Theatre in New York City, for John M. Carrère
1910s-1930s Photographed, researched, and lectured on gardens [view lantern slides of gardens] [view overview: "Lantern Slides for Garden & Historic House Lectures"]
1913-17 Operated a New York City studio in partnership with photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt, specializing in house and garden photography
1915 and 1928 Published photographs in Louise Shelton, Beautiful Gardens in America
1925 Traveled and photographed in Europe and the Middle East
1926 Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, VA, began with Reverend William Archer Rutherford Goodwin, part of a growing interest in historic preservation and documenting historic structures.
1927-1944 Created what today is called the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South by photographing in nine southern states and documenting more than 1,700 sites in more than 7,000 photographs (funding through the Carnegie grants began in 1933)
1927-29 Photographed Chatham (estate restored by Helen Devore) and then nearby Fredericksburg and Old Falmouth, VA  (both funded by Mrs. Devore)
1929 Exhibited "Pictorial Survey--Old Fredericksburg, Virginia--Old Falmouth and Other Nearby Places" in Fredericksburg, VA. Prints shown at Library of Congress in 1930
1930-48 Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture (PAEAA) began at the Library of Congress in May 1930, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Early on, the Library purchased 156 negatives of Virginia from Johnston [Note: Contrary to previously published accounts, the PAEAA accession register identifies Johnston as the source for only 1% of the 10,000 PAEAA images.]
by 1930 Took photographs to illustrate a survey of early churches. Book: Brock, Henry I. Colonial Churches in Virginia, ...Photographic Studies by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Richmond: Dale Press, 1930)
by 1932 Had created about 1,000 negatives of historic buildings, mainly made in Alexandria, Leesburg, Fredericksburg, Winchester, Charlottesville, and Richmond areas of Virginia. Also sold prints to Metropolitan Museum of Art
1933 Historic American Buildings Survey began, administered by the Library of Congress, National Park Service, and American Institute of Architects
1933 Received first grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York ($3,500 administered by Library of Congress) to document Virginia by making prints from new and existing negatives for the University of Virginia, with negatives to be deposited at the Library of Congress; working with with Leicester B. Holland (chief, Prints & Photographs Division at the Library) and Edmund S. Campbell (University of Virginia)
1934 Received second grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York ($2,500) to document Virginia
1935 Received third grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York ($3,500) to document Virginia
1936 Received fourth Carnegie grant, to photograph Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina ($4,500)

Received a fifth grant, from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, to photograph St. Augustine, FL ($500)

1937 Received sixth and final Carnegie grant; used primarily in 1937-39 to photograph in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Carnegie Survey includes a few additional photos taken as late as 1944.

Held six exhibitions in different cities: Baltimore, MD; Chapel Hill, NC; Charleston, SC; New Orleans, LA; St. Augustine, FL; and Washington, DC

1938 Book: Stoney, Samuel G. Plantations of the Carolina Low Country (Charleston: Carolina Art Association, 1938, 1945); the plates (p. 85-233) are from photographs by Johnston and Ben Juda Lubschez
1941 Book: Early Architecture of North Carolina: A Pictorial Survey by Frances Benjamin Johnston, with an Architectural History by Thomas T. Waterman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941, 1947)
By 1945 Moved to New Orleans, LA, and settled by 1946 at 1132 Bourbon St., in the French Quarter
1945 Became an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects "for her notable achievement in recording photographically the early architecture of the United States"
1947 Exhibited photographs at the Library of Congress
1952 Died in New Orleans on May 16 at age 88; buried in Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Washington, DC
1953 Photographs and papers remaining in her estate sold to the Library of Congress
1957 Book: Nichols, Frederick D. The Early Architecture of Georgia. With a Pictorial Survey by Frances Benjamin Johnston

Reference aid compiled by Helena Zinkham in 2011. Last revised: June 2019.
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  March 25, 2022
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