American Visions at the Paris Exposition, 1900: Another Look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's Hampton Photographs

Article excerpt

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. -W. E. B. DuBois, 1903

In July 1900 Frances Benjamin Johnston set sail for Europe, where she was to present an exhibition of work showcasing the diversity and professionalism of American women photographers at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Although Johnston chose not to include her own work, she was nonetheless well represented at the Exposition, where both her "artistic portraiture photographs" and her images of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a Negro teaching and trade college in Virginia, were on display. The collection of women's photographs was shown at the Third International Photographic Congress held in conjunction with the Exposition, where Johnston also spoke and was recognized with a medal for her efforts. The Hampton photographs were displayed in the Palace of Social Economy as part of the American Negro Exhibit, assembled with the participation of such prominent black leaders as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.1 Presented among books, charts, artifacts, models, photomontages, and many other photographs as documentary evidence illustrating "the educational and industrial progress of the Negro race in the United States," the Hampton images received a grand prize, as did the exhibition as a whole.2 And in a notable reversal of aesthetic fortune, while Johnston's exhibition of women photographers has ended up largely forgotten in the historical archives of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, many of the Hampton images now reside in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At the Paris Exposition, Johnston displayed the same canny ability to move between photographic constituencies that continually marked her career. A vocal advocate for working women, a professional photographer with ties to Alfred Stieglitz's circle of aesthetic pictorialists, and an entrepreneur with intimate knowledge of the workings of the World's Fairs, in 1900she was also carving a niche as a specialist in documenting educational programs and institutions. The Hampton images in particular were and remain crucial to securing her place in the history of photography, a place only enhanced by feminist scholarship in the 1980s. However, both these old and new histories of photography remain dominated by a conception of authorship determined by who was standing behind the camera when the shutter clicked. Feminist revisionism has left this paradigm largely intact.

But if we return to the Paris Exposition (rather than looking forward to the Museum of Modern Art), we find that Hampton Institute also demonstrated masterful public relations skills and seemed especially adept in its control over its images. Founded in southern Virginia in 1868 by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a white, missionary-trained government administrator, Hampton pursued its mission of Negro education in an increasingly inhospitable climate of Jim Crow laws, public lynchings, and enforced "accommodation," as opportunities for enfranchisement, education, and economic advancement for African Americans were being rapidly foreclosed.3 By 1900 Hampton's administration and faculty included several blacks; its most prominent graduate, Booker T. Washington, headed the Tuskegee Institute and took an active role in national politics, and the school vigorously courted national and international prominence as a model program that numbered lawyers, doctors, political leaders, social workers, journalists, and college teachers among its graduates, even as it continued to emphasize training in light industrial skills and basic agriculture. Clearly, Hampton was walking a tightrope. To ensure its survival the school needed to respond simultaneously to both those who wished to promote the progress of newly emancipated African Americans and those apprehensive about their newly acquired social mobility. …