The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston

By Fahlman, Betsy | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston


Fahlman, Betsy, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston * Maria Elizabeth Ausherman * Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009 * xvii, 282 pp. * $69.95

The highly successful career of one of the first professional American photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston, which spanned nearly seventy years, had few equals in its sheer productivity. The core of this excellent book concerns her monumental documentary survey of historic architecture and gardens in nine southern states, which was done between 1927 and 1949 and resulted in 20,000 negatives. Johnston occupies a significant position in the field of architectural history and historic preservation. Her handsome images blended "tradition and innovation," informed by a sensibility that was "precise and scholarly, romantically and aesthetically appealing" (p. 2).

In the first of her four chapters, Ausherman concisely chronicles Johnston's biography. The artist enjoyed a privileged upbringing, including art study in France. A decision to establish herself as a magazine illustrator in Washington, D. C, led her to both an interest in journalism and the medium of photography in the late 1880s. The commercial portrait studio she opened in 1893 further advanced her career, which she enhanced by promoting her work through publications and exhibitions.

Johnston's photographs of architecture and gardens were part of a "general suburban movement focusing on the private American garden," and they presented her with new professional opportunities during the 1910s (p. 101). Derived from the strong civic values of the City Beautiful movement, her efforts were reinforced by a national network of garden clubs. Her work recording contemporary gardens would infuse her images of historic landscapes.

Johnston's photographs of "Historic Architecture" (chaptet four) captured a distinctive regional cultural heritage, one which she saw disappearing. Rooted in the colonial revival movement of the 1890s, her images expressed "a new pride in America's past" (p. 126). Her efforts provided an important precedent for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), begun in 1934, and her systematic wotk established a model for future federal survey and inventory projects. That HABS was grounded in the practice of architecture meant that thete was a greater emphasis on buildings over gardens. …

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