1864 - 1952
Biography of Frances Benjamin Johnston
Published March 1, 2012
This biography is being featured in honor of the recent publication of Sam Watters' book, Gardens for a Beautiful America 1895 - 1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
House and garden photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston was born in Grafton, West Virginia a year before the end of the American Civil War. She was the only child of journalist Frances Antoinette Benjamin and Anderson Doniphan Johnston, a clerk at the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. From 1873 the family lived in the house that Johnston’s father purchased from his treasury colleague, American naturalist John Burroughs.
A student at the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies, in Govanstown, Maryland Johnston left in 1883 to spend two years at the Académie Julian in Paris. The fine-art training she received there and at the Art Students League in Washington after her return defined her pictorial aesthetic. She received her first camera in 1888 from George Eastman and studied photo technology with Thomas Smillie, the first photographer at the United States Museum, today The Smithsonian.
Johnston began working as a photojournalist in the 1890s, selling illustrated stories to Demorest’s Family Magazine, reporting on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The White House and Washington residences. She participated in Alfred Stieglitz’s promotion of photography as fine art and photographed writers, educators, presidents and their families, from Benjamin Harrison through Theodore Roosevelt. Her posed 1899 photographs of African-American students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute are among her most significant work.
Garden photography evolved with professional landscape architecture at the turn of the 20th century. Johnston produced her first landscape and garden images while photographing The White House in the late 1890s. In 1903, she photographed the northern California ranch designed by Albert C. Schweinfurth for education reformer Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Then, in October 1904 Country Life in America published Johnston’s photographs of the Mission Revival house and garden. The magazine was a mainstay for the photographer’s work before the 1920s when The Garden Magazine, The House Beautiful, House & Garden and Town & Country became leading clients.
Recognizing the potential for photography assignments from City Beautiful projects, Johnston moved to New York in 1909 after winning a commission to photograph Carrère & Hastings’ New Theatre. From 1909 until 1916 she lived and worked with photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt who began her career in St. Louis.
The two photographers formed a professional partnership in 1913, the year twelve garden clubs founded The Garden Club of America. As part of its mission to promote garden design, in 1914, the club began a collection of photographs of member gardens. Already established as photographers through their published images of Daniel W. Langton’s Princeton, New Jersey garden for Moses Taylor Pyne; J. Pierpont Morgan’s Cragsland estate along the Hudson River; and Long Island North and South Shore houses, Johnston and Hewitt produced a large body of work for the club’s photography initiative. They worked in black and white and autochrome, an early color process. The Glen Cove garden of George D. Pratt, designed by James L. Greenleaf, the Southampton garden of Colonel Thomas H. Barber designed by the Olmsted firm and Gray Gardens in Easthampton by author Anna Gilman Hill were among Johnston and Hewitt’s work from this period.
In 1917 Johnston ended her association with Hewitt. Both continued as independent photographers, living in New York and working on speculation and commission from landscape architects and garden owners. Johnston travelled from March through October in New England and the Midwest, to California in 1917 and 1923, and to Europe in 1925 where she photographed Italian Renaissance villas and the revivalist gardens of Americans Elsie de Wolfe, Bernard Berenson and Nancy Astor. In the 1920s Johnston joined the urban garden movement as a member of The City Gardens Club of New York City and photographed newly renovated row house yards, notably, in 1921, Turtle Bay Gardens for the project’s co-architect, Edward C. Dean.
Johnston wrote illustrated articles for magazines on Myron Hunt’s backyard garden in Pasadena, California and Edith Wharton’s Pavillon Colombe north of Paris, France, exhibited prints at horticultural societies, and from 1915 lectured at garden clubs, museums, and social organizations with hand-colored lantern slides she produced from her garden photographs. Speaking extemporaneously, Johnston promoted popular design themes—the outdoor room, graduated color in flower borders and the linkage of house to garden through professional planning.
While scouting for Town & Country in 1926, Johnston toured southern antebellum gardens undergoing restoration. Sensing opportunities for continued work, she moved back to Washington, D.C. in 1927. During that year and the next, she produced a photo survey of houses and gardens in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, paid for by Helen S. Devore, a lumber heiress living at Chatham manor with a garden laid out by Ellen Shipman. From this time through the Depression, Johnston’s work transitioned from photographing gardens designed by local garden club members and landscape architects Rose Greely and Nellie B. Allen to working with the Library of Congress, documenting southern buildings, as part of a pictorial archive of historic American architecture.
In 1945, Johnston, 82 years old, retired to a house she renovated on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There, for the first time, she designed and planted her only garden.
As one of the first professional garden photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston helped define American garden photography and the images she produced influenced landscape architects and garden amateurs alike, who viewed publications that featured her work. Today, the Library of Congress preserves Johnston’s house and garden print photographs and over one thousand black and white and hand-tinted lantern slides.
Ambassadors of Progress, edited by Bronwyn A. E. Griffith. Washington, D.C.: Musée d’Art Américain, Giverny, France, in Association with the Library of Congress, 2001.
Ausherman, Maria Elizabeth. The Photographic Legacy of Frances Benjamin Johnston. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.
Berch, Bettina, Berch, The Woman behind the Lens. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000.
Watters, Sam. Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935, Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston. New York: Acanthus Press, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, 2012.
Woods, Mary N. Beyond the Architect’s Eye, Photographs and the American Built Environment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
About the author
Sam Watters, an independent author, writes and lectures about American houses and gardens before the 1930s.