Frances Benjamin Johnston: What a Woman Can Do with a Camera

Frances Benjamin Johnston holding camera while excited children crowd around

Johnston with fascinated future photographers

Frances Benjamin Johnston, born in West Virginia in 1864, is said to have received one of her first cameras from Kodak founder George Eastman, a friend of her well-connected family. I don’t know if that is a Kodak in the shot above, but it looks likely. It seems to have been taken in the 1890s – thus not long after Eastman had debuted the portable camera in 1888 – while the cyanotype below of her with a large-format camera on a balcony of the State, War and Navy Building was taken in 1888. (This also almost certainly gives the lie to the oft-repeated notion that her “first” camera was from Eastman; she is said to have written him about his new, lighter-weight camera in 1889, after which he sent her one.)

Johnston had grown up in Washington, D.C., and partly through her mother’s associations there (she was the Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and “knew all of the important people” in addition to being related to President Grover Cleveland’s wife), many of the city’s doors were opened for her, and as early as while she was still in her late 20s. As her biography on says, “from the 1880s into the 1910s, she would take pictures during the administrations of Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This resulted in an outstanding and historically invaluable pictorial document that depicted the members of the various first families, as well as White House staff members and visitors.” Johnston even took the final image of the living President McKinley minutes before he was assassinated at the Buffalo Exhibition in 1901.

Pioneer female photograher Frances Benjamin Johnston making a portrait, State, War & Navy Building, 1888

Frances Benjamin Johnston making portrait of unidentified man, Washington, D.C. (1888)

She also opened a portrait studio in the city in 1894, photographing everyone from Mark Twain to Booker T. Washington to Susan B. Anthony. She was the only female commercial photographer in the city, and in 1897 she published an article in The Ladies Home Journal, “What A Woman Can Do With A Camera,” in which she shared some of the expertise she had gained. It’s a charming piece, and includes this observation: “It is a profession that should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business – but only under very well-defined conditions…: The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital, and a field to exploit.”

Frances Benjamin Johnston's wedding portrait of Alice Roosevelt, 1906

Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest daughter Alice’s wedding photo (Johnston, 1906)

At least Johnston acknowledges how intimidating that sounds: “This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman, with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible.” I’m sure that is true, although one could probably surmise that in her case it couldn’t have hurt to have the connections provided by her family, not to mention the art education in Paris that preceded her photography career. She received her initial photography training, for example, from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian, and then in the 1890s, according to this article from (Johnston photographed and exhibited in the area in the 1920s), she “toured Europe, using her connection to Smillie to visit various prominent photographers and gather items for the museum’s collections.”

Johnston also “served for a time as a Washington liaison for newly formed Eastman Kodak, forwarding film and serving as a customer service representative when lenses or cameras needed repairs. In this role, she gained firsthand working knowledge of her craft and the fine details of her equipment.”

Photo of a Southern interior by Frances Benjamin Johnston

Southern interior, Frances Benjamin Johnston (c 1920s)

However she got her start, Johnston quickly became one of the finest photographers of her generation, branching out from her beginnings as a portrait photographer to become, in the first decade of the 20th century, what is generally regarded as America’s first female photojournalist. Some time after that she developed an interest in the South, and particularly its vanishing architecture, and the article notes that in the ’30s she often “covered more than 12,000 miles annually in her quest to capture the rapidly vanishing icons of America’s past….Johnston was particular and professional in her approach to a subject. Well into her 80s, she was known to lie on her back on a hard floor in order to capture just the right angle on a ceiling adornment. One of her photos can tell more about a site than a dozen from another source.”

Johnston, who never married (she was by some accounts a lesbian, and produced several intriguing self portraits, sometimes dressed as a man, complete with fake mustache) led an interesting, independent – some have called it Bohemian – life, finally settling in New Orleans, where she died at the age of 88 in 1952. Her collection of more than 20,000 photographs and almost 4,000 negatives resides in the Library of Congress.

Circa 1899 cyanotype photo of high school girls climbing apparatus, Frances Benjamin Johnston

Cyanotype by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Western High School, Washington, D.C. (c 1899)

A Very Early Dog Snapshot

Circa 1890 photograph of dog from a Kodak Original or No. 1 Camera

Through a keyhole: an early Kodak snapshot (circa 1890)

This photo from my collection is an early example of a dog (along with a lamb) captured in a snapshot – difficult as it may be at first to make him or her out. Of course photographs of dogs had been taken before, but (as I talk about in my first post) the amateur snapshot was born in 1888 with the advent of Kodak’s first camera, known as The Kodak, and this shot would have been a product of either that or its immediate successor the following year, the Kodak No. 1. The 2 1/2″ diameter image indicates that it is from one of those cameras, as the Kodak No. 2 produced shots of 3 1/2″ in diameter.

The person I obtained this from estimated that it dated from about 1890 and had been taken in the Thousand Islands area of New York – which interestingly is only about 120 miles from Rochester, home of Kodak. I think it is quite beautiful, and that the round format really almost makes the photo in some ways. (My wife said it sort of made her think of a Wes Anderson movie, and the feeling of peering into a different world.) It really is a photo of much more than the dog and lamb, the photographer clearly not having followed Kodak’s recommendation at the time, which suggested, as you can see below, photographing a dog from a distance of six feet.

Kodak's recommendation for photographing dogs and cows, circa 1890

Should you want to showcase your dog to best effect…

Here is a close-up of the figures, with a little contrast added. I have no idea, of course, how many snapshots of dogs were taken in those first few years. This may have been the 10th, or the 10,000th, but in any event was probably pretty magical at the time, as it remains today.

Close-up of dog and lamb with people in early Kodak snapshot

Close-up of dog and lamb being helped to pose for a very early Kodak camera

“As Convenient as the Pencil”

Circa 1890 Kodak circular photo

Reporrtedly one of the earliest photographs taken with a Kodak camera

George Eastman, as almost anyone at all interested in the history of photography knows, was the founder of Kodak, and is regarded as the person who brought photography to the masses. He was an early contributor to the development of dry-plate photography (before which creating a photograph was a much more cumbersome affair, requiring essentially carrying around a darkroom, along with some fairly specialized knowledge of chemistry, etc.) and in 1885 created the first paper film negative. He followed that in 1888 with the first roll film camera, and the rest is…well, one writer has estimated that there have been about 3.5 trillion photos taken to date.

In a section on the history of the company on the Kodak website, the instigation for Eastman’s attempts to simplify the photographic process was apparently a planned vacation to Santo Domingo in 1877, when he was 24 and working as a clerk at Rochester Savings Bank:

“When a co-worker suggested he make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet plate days. The camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod. And he carried a tent so that he could spread photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them, and develop the exposed plates before they dried out. There were chemicals, glass tanks, a heavy plate holder, and a jug of water. The complete outfit ‘was a pack-horse load,’ as he described it.”

Kodak's George Eastman, circa 1880

George Eastman, circa 1880

Eastman did not make the trip, but his interest in photography was sparked. After a further experience in which some of his chemicals spilled and ruined his packed clothes during a trip to Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, he became even less enamored of wet-plate photography. Then one day he read about photographers in the UK making their own gelatin emulsions (which remained sensitive to light while dry, thus doing away with much of the inconvenience of the wet-plate process). He threw himself headlong into working on his own formula – some nights, according to his mother, sleeping on the floor next to the stove, so tired that he couldn’t undress.

By 1880 Eastman had not only refined his formula, but also patented a machine for producing large quantities of the plates, having quickly recognized “the possibilities of making dry plates for sale to other photographers. ‘The idea gradually dawned on me,’ he later said, ‘that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.’ Or as he described it more succinctly ‘to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.'”

And that convenience is what early Kodak advertisements stressed, with phrases such as “Anybody can use it,” “No knowledge of photography is necessary” and “Anybody who can wind a watch can use the Kodak camera.” Or, as in the ad below, their famous phrase “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Vintage Kodak camera ad touting its ease of use for amateurs

No instructions – or portable darkroom – needed

And they really did. The cameras came loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, after which the photgrapher would return the camera to the factory. The film was then processed and the camera reloaded and sent back. The resulting shots were 2 1/2″ in diameter and round.

According to camerapedia, “the round image was a design decision, partly as a way of ensuring that the photographer didn’t have to hold the camera exactly level with the horizon, and partly to compensate for the poor image quality at the corners of the image.”

1888 Kodak camera

An example of the first Kodak camera (photo: The National Museum of American History)

The very first camera, produced in 1888, was simply called The Kodak. The model with the name that makes it seem like it was Eastman’s original effort, Kodak No. 1 (also commonly called the No. 1 Kodak), actually was the company’s second camera, and was produced from 1889 to 1895. It featured a more reliable shutter as well as an easily removable lensboard rather than one held in place by screws. The cameras cost $25, which today would be somewhere in the vicinity of $600.

Still to come, of course, were folding pocket cameras, the brownie, and all the rest. But those will be touched on in future posts. In any event, it must have been an exciting time. Within just a few years – by 1892, when the company changed its name from ‘The Eastman Company’ to ‘The Eastman Kodak Company’ – it was capitalized to the tune of 5 million dollars. George Eastman was only in his late 30s at that point, and was already demonstrating his acumen for business. Beyond his technical ingenuity and fierce determination, he just seemed to have a feel for things. As Rudolph Kingslake puts it in A History of the Rochester, NY Camera and Lens Companies, “Eastman’s success over his many competitors was mainly due to massive advertising and an excellent sales organization with world-wide affiliations, to which must be added his uncanny knack of hiring the right people, and anticipating what would best please the public.”

Eastman was an intriguing character, both in his early years and then later in life, and I will of course delve more into his story in future posts.