I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow

Posted by | January 28, 2011

Born on January 15, 1864 in Grafton, WV, Frances Benjamin Johnston transcended both regional and national notions about women’s place in the 19th century to become a pioneer in American photography and photojournalism, and a crusader with her camera for the historic preservation of the Old South. Through her active encouragement of women who wished to enter her chosen profession, she helped to transform women’s sphere. The photographic record she compiled in over than fifty years as a working photographer continues to serve as a guide to the American past and to document her wide-ranging interest and achievements.

In 1927, 37 years after her first published photo appeared in “Demorest’s Family Magazine,” Johnston received the commission which led to her extensive survey of the architecture of the South, when Mrs. Daniel Devore asked her to photograph everything of interest in Fredericksburg, VA. The 200 photographs Johnston took as a result of this commission became the nucleus of the pictorial archives of Early American architecture at the Library of Congress.

Queen Anne County, Maryland, circa 1936. “Walnut Grove. Dorsey Wright house. Has fine brick ends laid in Flemish bond. Built 1683 by Solomon Wright.”

A series of Carnegie Foundation Grants to fund Johnston’s work followed from 1933 to 1940. During this final phase of her career, Johnston logged more than 150,000 miles in her chaffeur-driven, 1930 Buick and took more than 10,000 photographs that have served as invaluable guides to the historic restoration of Southern colonial architecture. Johnston believed (and with some justice) that this contribution to American history held greater significance for future generations of Americans than all her previous photographic work.

In an interview with Maud O’Bryan Ronstrom from the New Orleans ‘Times-Picayune’ in 1947, Johnston, then 83 years old, talked about her achievements. Typically, she looked ahead to her completion of works in progress (such as the restoration of her house on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and a book on ‘The Early Architecture of the Lower Mississippi Valley’) rather than to her retirement. Johnston’s sense of humor emerges in this interview in her description of the lengths to which she sometimes had gone to capture a photograph.

“I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow! Most of the time I have to be excruciatingly patient waiting for the light to get precisely right. Sometimes I have a tree cut down, have a stump removed, or a platform erected to get the proper perspective. I have shot pictures from on top of boxcars and loaded trucks. If I’m in a city street, I often call the police to hold up or detour traffic while I photograph a place.

“When I photograph an interior,” she grinned, “I usually ship the family out, lock the door and buckle down to business. One hostess caught me red-handed, moving out her furniture and removing dear Uncle Harry’s monstrosity of a portrait from over a mantelpiece. She ordered me out of her house, saying under no conditions could I use my camera there. That was the only picture I ever burglarized. I took it while she wasn’t looking.”

Johnston may have affronted wealthy women occasionally with her insistence on taking the photograph she wanted to take, but her relationships with other women photographers were manifestly cordial. From about 1925 on, Johnston kept carbon copies of her letters, and while her intense interest in photography fills most of her letters, they enhance immeasurably our understanding of the strong-spirited woman who always took time to remember friends’ and relatives’ birthdays and to give love and support to other women in her profession.

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Self-portrait as a Bohemian woman.

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Self-portrait as a proper Victorian lady.

While the Johnston of the 1940s emerges much more clearly from study of her work and correspondence than the Johnston of the 1890s, the fair-haired, plucky slip of a girl who challenged conventional notions about ‘true womanhood’ at the turn of the century remains. At 83, Johnston was comfortable wearing old tennis shoes and joking with younger people, like Maud Ronstrom, about the significance of the four roses on her (Johnston’s) floppy hat.

The two antithetical poses in which she photographed herself at the age of thirty-two suggest that she may not always have been so comfortable with herself; the photography of Johnston as a proper Victorian in furs, plumed hat, and gloves probably yields no more of the real Frances Johnston than the photograph of her as a Bohemian artist with beer stein, cigarette, exposed legs, and gallery of male conquests on the mantel above. To a degree, perhaps to a large degree, Johnston’s discomfort with self-revelation may have been the result of the limited roles for women which this choice of pose suggests.

Although the woman behind Johnston’s camera eludes full understanding, Johnston enhanced the possibilities for women in her field, and contributed to our visual understanding of American history. At her death she left thousands of unforgettable photographs. In her more than fifty years as a photographer, Johnston took her camera where few women were permitted to go and made photographs which speak for themselves concerning the range of her vision and achievements.

‘Frances Benjamin Johnston,’ by Anna Shannon in “Missing Chapters: West Virginia Women in History,” West Virginia Women’s Commission, 1983

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