The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952

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The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 18641952. By BETTINA BERCH. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 2000. xiv, 172 pp. Cloth $65.00; paper $24.95.

By the turn of the century, the medium of photography had attracted many women, one of the most fascinating of whom was Frances Benjamin Johnston, the subject of this remarkable new study. Bettina Berch deftly positions Johnston's work and career within its historical context, and her intelligently alert period sensibility is informed by concise analysis, a canny reading of images, and insightful alertness to nuances of gender and race. Wisely, she resists simple labels, preferring to let her material convey the complex texture of the artist. Johnston was a self-confident woman "determined to make her own living as an artist" (p. 4). As a successful commercial photographer her work ranged from portraiture and documentary to garden and architectural subjects.

The book is organized into seven chapters (two have substantial Virginia material), and Berch proceeds chronologically through the major segments of Johnston's life. In "The Birth of a Bohemian: 18641885," she considers Johnston's family. Brought up in a progressively minded household in Washington, D.C., Johnston was raised in a decidedly "woman-centered atmosphere," (p. 12) and throughout her career surrounded herself with "strong, creative women," (p. 145) who, like herself, chose to be independent. Marriage did not interest this pioneering figure.

After art study in Paris, Johnston returned to the U.S. and established herself as a photojournalist and portrait photographer in the nation's capital, the focus of "A Studio of Her Own: Washington, D.C., 1885-1900." Carefully cultivating her career, she made full use of her personal connections to obtain portrait commissions from the city's political and social elite.

"Showing America to the World: Paris, 1900" documents Johnston's role as the official U.S. delegate (and the only woman) to the International Photographic Congress in Paris, for which she organized an exhibition of women photographers. Among her most notable works from this period was a series of photographs of Hampton Institute (1899). In addition to her Virginia work, she also undertook projects at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and at the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. …