Last updated: February 9, 2022
“…in a country like ours, where a woman needs only the courage to enter a profession suitable to her talents and within her powers of accomplishment.” Frances Benjamin Johnston, What a Woman Can do with a Camera
When Frances Benjamin Johnston arrived at Mammoth Cave on October 27, 1891, she was two years into a career as a photojournalist. This was a stepping-stone to becoming one of the first professional photographers; a feat that was rare for men, much less women, at that time.
Johnston was no stranger to journalism or the support of women who walked on the edges of traditional female roles. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, was a “lady correspondent” who covered congressional activities and other political aspects in Washington, D.C. where Johnston’s father, Anderson Doniphon Johnston, was head bookkeeper for the Treasury Department. Johnston, wanting to illustrate as well as write, studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris, France from 1883-1885. Upon her return to Washington, D. C., Johnston was introduced to the world of freelance journalism, wherein she could illustrate her own articles. As magazine subscriptions spread, photography witnessed its own revolutions with the debut of the new Kodak No. 1, one of the first cameras to feature roll-film. Gifted one by George Eastman in 1887, she began photography under the tutelage of Thomas Smillie at the Smithsonian. Despite the training, she claimed that ignorance of the subject was the key to her success, i.e. she did not know what could not be done.
Johnston’s first major article “Uncle Sam’s Money” appeared in Demorest Family Magazine in 1889 and documents a time when money was made more by hand and less by machine. She was commissioned for many other projects including a series about the White House and the homes of members of President Harrison’s administration. Johnston journeyed to the Kohinoor Mines, Pennsylvania in 1891 where she documented boys sifting slate from coal.
When Johnston and her mother came to Mammoth Cave for Demorest Family Magazine, she was no stranger to challenge. Johnston spent about 3 weeks, making “many weary, and often fruitless, trips” into the cave with her mother, her cave guide Will Garvin, camera equipment, and volatile powder. She developed a technique for conserving powder, using newspaper as a crucible. She used only 12 ounces of powder for her entire battle to “vanquish the archenemy darkness.” Her article “Mammoth Cave by Flashlight” became a huge success and featured 25 pictures that were highly praised.
Johnston admitted that she “wore out one camera after another” paying great attention to detail. Often details that would be omitted from history if not for her. In 1892, Johnston traveled to Chicago, Illinois for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Later, Johnston “enlisted” onboard the U. S. S. Olympia in 1899 in the trade of “snapshots” but “mustered out” after a couple of months when she had finished taking photos for her article. She brought focus to factories where women made shoes and cigar boxes. She captured students in classrooms at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, U. S. Indian Industrial School, and Tuskegee Institute, where George Washington Carver called her the “pluckiest woman I ever saw.” She also made illustrative surveys of schools around Washington D. C. She opened a studio out of her family home in Washington D. C. and began portraiture. She took photos of Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Joel Chandler Harris, and Teddy Roosevelt and his family.
After a European tour in 1905, Johnston reframed her career from photojournalism and portraiture to photo-documentation. She became interested in gardens and opened a photographic studio with her partner, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, on Fifth Avenue, New York. She wrote and illustrated a series of lectures on gardens in the United States and Europe featuring the works of many landscape architects of the time. This acted as a gateway into documenting colonial architecture in the southern United States. She began working with the Historic American Buildings Survey and co-authored The Early Architecture of North Carolina with historian Thomas T. Waterman that featured over 240 photographs. Her preservation efforts and advocation for such projects pushed many cities, such as Charleston, SC and New Orleans, LA to instate zoning ordinances to protect historic districts. Verne Chatelain, former National Park Service Historian, credits the zoning ordinances passed in St. Augustine, FL to Johnston’s work.
In 1945, Johnston bought a house on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. She would finally put roots down as a self-proclaimed “octo-geranium” and cultivate her own small garden and cats until her death in 1952.