The Curious Case of Frances Benjamin Johnston

FrancesBenjaminJohnstonBlogsizedThe Library recently acquired a small album of photographs taken in Virginia’s Tidewater region. It contains six cyanotypes depicting work at the freight docks of Newport News and other subjects.  Of particular interest is a laid-in cyanotype which appears to be a portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, a pioneering female American photographer.

Johnston was a remarkable photographer.  She took portraits of American presidents and the high society of the turn of the nineteenth century from her Washington, D.C. studio, but also participated in ambitious documentary projects, such as her architectural photographs of Southern states.  For one of her best-known commissions, she traveled to Virginia to document the students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1899-1900.  Her photographs of this important education institution for African Americans and Native Americans are preserved in her collection at the Library of Congress.

Based on the probable identification of the woman in the photograph as Johnston and the photographs of the area around Hampton in the album, these photographs have been dated to the first decade of the 1900s.  However, no information about the photographer is yet known.  Were they a student or colleague of Johnston?  Is it possible that the photographs (or some of the photographs) are by Johnston herself?

African American women aboard a steamboat, from the Tidewater album, ca. 1900.
African American women aboard a steamboat, from the Tidewater album, ca. 1900.

TidewaterAlbumPyroDeveloperBlogsizeThe album is also accompanied by handwritten directions for making “Pyro Developer” and a “fixing bath for platinum prints,” which may provide further evidence that the creator may have been a student or novice photographer.  (The large initial “B” on the “Pyro Developer” formula bears some resemblance to Johnston’s handwriting, but the handwriting of the rest of the formula does not appear to be similar to hers.)

If anyone has clues or guesses to contribute to the mystery of the photographer’s identity, please share them in the comments section below!

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections.

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2 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Frances Benjamin Johnston”

  1. I wrote my thesis on Frances Benjamin Johnston and worked with her collection at the Library of Congress. It seems to be an interesting little album, but having seen hundreds of photographs of Johnson,I would say that is certainly not a portrait of her.

    Anne E. Peterson
    Curator of Photographs
    DeGolyer Library, SMU

  2. I’ve written a book manuscript on photography at Hampton at the turn of the century. Hampton had a faculty camera u with some very capable photographers who illustrated six of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s books of poetry. I don’t recognize the woman in the photo. I concur that it is not Johnston. Typically the photographers made cyanotype work prints of their negative and I’ve seen references to the club taking outings to Newport News. I’d love to see more of the photos, as I may be able to identify them. I was at Duke in 2007 and presented a paper on Hampton Camera Club at the library. There is a similar album of cyanotypes at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk by Emily Herron, one of the members of the club, and there are many similar prints in the Hampton University Archives. The lead photographer, Leigh Richmond Miner, also has a private collection of platinum exhibition prints preserved by his heirs in Connecticut.

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