Tar Heels Have Long Known Frances Benjamin Johnston

Hayes Plantation Photo
Hayes Plantation, by Frances Benjamin Johnston

The Library of Congress today released online images of more than 1,000 lantern slides of American gardens taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Johnston’s name may be familiar to North Carolinians. Her photographs of North Carolina houses and other buildings, taken from 1935-1938, provide rich documentation of the architectural styles present in the state. They also record the disrepair and neglect that had befallen some of North Carolina’s classic homes–conditions brought on by the Depression and earlier economic deprivations.

Johnston is considered one of the country’s first female photographers. She was born in Rochester, New York in 1864. Her family later moved to Washington, D.C., where she was educated. At the age of 19, she headed for Paris to study art at the Academic Julien. Two years later she returned to Washington, D.C. and enrolled in the Art Students’ League. With time, Johnston applied her artistic talents to newspaper illustration. But eventually she focused on photography because she considered it more accurate.

From 1933-1940 Johnston worked on the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, a project devoted to recording the early buildings and gardens in Maryland, Virgina, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi. Johnston’s negatives for that project are housed at the Library of Congress.

While photographing for the Carnegie Survey, Johnston also worked on other projects. In 1936 the American Council of Learned Societies paid her $3500 to capture images of early North Carolina architecture. She had guidance on the project from North Carolina historian Albert Ray Newsome, UNC sociologist Howard Odum and Duke historian and librarian William Boyd. During the course of her work in North Carolina she rambled through 48 counties. Many of the photographs she took were later printed in The Early Architecture of North Carolina, a book she co-produced with Thomas Waterman and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1941.

Johnston died in 1952.

The New York Times and Washington Post have articles on Johnston and her lantern slides in today’s editions (You may need a login and password for the Times). A biography of Johnston was published in 2000.

One thought on “Tar Heels Have Long Known Frances Benjamin Johnston”

  1. The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009). “…offers the fullest account available of the remarkable career of Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of America’s finest photographers and recorders of the national heritage. This book is amazing for its assured handling of Johnston’s place as pioneer woman photographer and leader in the movement for architectural recording and preservation.”—John Maynard, New York University

    Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) achieved acclaim in the late nineteenth century as an accomplished photographer. One of the first women in a field dominated by men, she was known for her portraiture, artistic studies, photojournalism, garden, and architectural photography.

    Drawing upon Johnston’s original papers and photographs from the Library of Congress, Maria Ausherman focuses on Johnston’s most compendious project: to visually record the traditional architecture of the South across nine states.

    Johnston’s work had a lasting impact on her times. She was a vital force in the early historic preservation movement, and her work remains well known and discussed to this day. Ausherman’s examination of this extraordinary photographer’s career shows both the early origins of her style and vision, as well as her attempts to change society through her art.

    Maria Ausherman, a fellow Tar Heel, is an independent scholar interested in the history of preservation in the U.S., the history of photography, and the intersection of fine arts and documentation. She lives in New York City.

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