For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2018, the New York Times launched “Overlooked,” a series in its obituary section dedicated to honoring the memory of women as well as men of color whose deaths the Times had neglected to write about earlier.
Among the people featured is Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), understood to be the nation’s first female photojournalist. She was also a force to be reckoned with. The Times’ Richard B. Woodward wrote in his Dec. 15, 2021, article: “Undaunted by obstacles faced by others of her gender and happy to rattle the easily shocked, she demonstrated her character early on with an 1896 self-portrait titled The New Woman, in which she sits in profile beside a fireplace, her dress hiked up to reveal a ribbon of petticoat. In her right hand is a cigarette, in her left a beer stein. For an even brassier self-portrait, she assumed a head-to-toe male persona, complete with mustache and trousers.” One writer has described her as “the most famous lesbian you’ve never heard of.”
Johnston photographed U.S. presidents and their families, Supreme Court justices, and famous people ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Mark Twain to Booker T. Washington and Madame Wu. She created extensive photo documentation for two newly established Black schools: Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, and Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. And she traveled widely to document architecture and gardens.
It was likely this latter area of interest that led her to Henry E. Huntington, as she had established a profitable line in her business by photographing famous homes in the United States and Europe. The Huntington would become one such project.
As Henry Huntington became more aware of her work—in particular, her portraits of Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others—he decided in 1924 to buy an extensive portfolio from her: 13 crates containing more than 1,200 hand-selected glass plate negatives and accompanying prints, as well as cyanotype and platinum prints, all for the sum of $3,500 (about $62,000 today). Jennifer A. Watts, The Huntington’s former curator of photographs and the staff member who cataloged the collection, laid out the details of the Johnston collection in an exceptional 1995 article in the journal History of Photography.
Johnston was born in West Virginia but grew up in Washington, D.C., in comfortable surroundings and with access to a star-studded network: Her mother was a political journalist for the Baltimore Sun, and her father worked for the Treasury Department. Through her parents’ contacts, she took up photography after receiving a camera as a gift from George Eastman of Eastman Kodak fame. Johnston also took photography lessons from the first official photographer and curator of photographs at the Smithsonian Institution, Thomas Smillie. And she finished her education in Paris, where her studies in fine art would enhance the quality of her work behind the camera.
Johnston’s confidence and bravura fueled her success: She became an early advocate for women in photography, writing the 1897 essay “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” in Ladies’ Home Journal.
Watts wrote: “Johnston’s catalog of qualities which the successful woman photographer must possess included, but was not limited to, an eye for detail, tact, affability, a ‘genius for hard work,’ overriding patience, an innate sense of one’s uniqueness, discriminating taste, a pleasant and obliging nature, and, above all, a willingness to ‘accept cheerfully any work that comes, doing what there is to do, rather than waiting for the particular kind of work one would prefer.’”
Photography was the through line that would define her life, including private matters. In 1901, Johnston met Mattie Edwards Hewitt (1869–1956), also a photographer, in Buffalo, New York. Hewitt was married at the time, but clearly there was a spark. Hewitt divorced her husband and, in 1913, moved with Johnston to New York City, where they established a home and a photography studio together.
What survives is a small bit of steamy correspondence from Hewitt to Johnston, documented in the book The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952, by Bettina Berch. Hewitt writes in one such missive: “If I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very, very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.”
But the partnership would not last. The couple separated in 1917, and reports suggest that it was a bitter parting. Hewitt stayed in New York and focused her photography work on architecture and landscape. Johnston traveled extensively for her photography and would later retire to New Orleans, purchasing a house on Bourbon Street. “She had an irascible edge,” Watts wrote. “She displayed a propensity for heavy smoking, imbibed in sidecar cocktails, and was known to remark, ‘Yes, I am the greatest woman photographer in the world.’ When she died in May of 1952, at the age of 88, her claim could certainly be debated, but the staggering body of work she left behind was a testament to her successful and far-ranging career.”