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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection

A Kodak creates a sensation (Frances Benjamin Johnston holding camera). Between 1890 and 1900. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) was one of the photographers who carried out photographic assignments for George Grantham Bain's news service (see the George Grantham Bain Collection section of this guide). One of her scoops for Bain was to photograph and interview Admiral George Dewey, the “Hero of Manila Bay,” aboard his flagship as it rested in the harbor of Naples, Italy, in 1899, after Dewey's naval victory in the Philippines. Since women did not readily obtain invitations to board battleships, Johnston made use of her connections, tracking down Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt at his Oyster Bay home and obtaining from him a letter of reference that read, “My dear Admiral Dewey, Miss Johnston is a lady, and whom I personally know. I can vouch for, she does good work, and any promise she makes she will keep” (Pete Daniel and Raymond Smock, A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1889-1910 (New York: Harmony Books, 1974), 57-58).

In addition to running the active Washington, D.C., portrait studio that she had launched in 1890, Johnston continued to pursue freelance photojournalism, publishing magazine articles illustrated with her own photographs on topics ranging from coal mining to new methods in education. Turning increasingly to garden and estate photography in the 1910s, Johnston also forged a name for herself in that photographic specialty (see, for instance, Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South in the Regional Architectural Surveys section).

Long an advocate for photography as a profession for women, Johnston took on the assignment of representing the work of women photographers in the 1900 Paris Exposition. This advocacy, along with her mastery of a variety of subfields of the photographic profession, earned Johnston the status of a pioneer among women photographers.

Scope of the Collection

The results of Johnston's early forays into photojournalism, along with photographs from other stages of her varied career, family photographs and keepsakes, and images by other women photographers, make up the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (25,000 items, ca. 1864-1947, bulk 1897-1927). Women appear in Johnston's photojournalistic coverage of various industries, including:

Johnston's portrait work demonstrates her ability to capitalize on her connections to Washington's politically powerful and socially elite, capturing the faces and activities of Washington, D.C., and New York society women. See especially:

Associated material held in the Manuscript Division offers further insight into Johnston's life and working methods.

Searching the Collection

Most of the images that researchers or staff have requested for reproduction can be searched in the online catalog, where the collection has its own listing.

To look for images for which no online record exists, on-site researchers can:

  • consult the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog in the category Groups of Images (the photographic prints have been grouped by subject into LOTs); submit a call slip to have desired LOTs retrieved. Some LOTs have more detailed listings of contents in the online finding aid.
  • on-site researchers can consult the Biographical Index, where portraits in LOT 11735 are listed by the individual's name.

Sample Images