The following is a guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.
Conversations with visiting researchers that lead to new appreciation for the many interconnections among Library of Congress collections are one of the pleasures of my job as a photography curator. The following interview was done with Jane Pierce, Carl Jacobs Foundation Research Assistant in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who visited the Prints & Photographs Division to study photographs of Hampton Institute by the Washington photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952).
Micah: Jane, thank you for taking the time to discuss your research. To start, can you tell us a bit about what brought you to the Library?
Jane: In preparation for MoMA’s new publication Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album, I visited the Library to research photographs from Johnston’s commission at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which she worked on in December 1899 and January 1900. This school, now Hampton University, was founded in 1868 to provide an education to African-Americans post-emancipation, and by 1900 they were admitting Native Americans as well.
Micah: How does the Hampton work at the Library differ from the photographs in MoMA’s collection?
Jane: MoMA has a set of 159 of these photographs from Johnston’s commission, which used to be bound in an album, and it was invaluable to compare/contrast these with the similar set at the Library of Congress. Generally they represent the same body of work (and both were printed in the luxurious platinum process), but the Library of Congress collection holds a number of additional scenes Johnston shot in the vicinity of Hampton, but not on campus, like the photograph below.
Micah: Johnston led quite a fascinating life and had a long and varied photographic career—making art, portraiture, photojournalism, and architectural photographs. What led to her being selected for this commission?
Jane: Johnston is considered one of America’s first female photojournalists, and the Library of Congress holds her life’s work. She was a trailblazer, which I think she captured perfectly in this self-portrait she arranged in her portrait studio in Washington, D.C.
She sits with her skirt hiked up, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other. In 1896 this would have probably raised quite a few eyebrows, not to mention the photographs she took dressed as a man!
One of the main reasons Johnston likely received her commission at Hampton Institute was that in the spring of 1899 she had taken a commission to photograph the Washington, D.C. public school system. The majority of these photographs were of white students, but otherwise the photographs look remarkably similar to the ones she would photograph months later at Hampton. In most cases, the students are arranged in equally spaced groups and all gaze attentively in the direction of whatever lesson is at hand. This photograph of a class field trip is actually one of the less-staged tableaux (some students were caught mid-motion, which Johnston cautiously avoided at Hampton), but I loved seeing the students standing below the “Printing Press” mural by John White Alexander, which can still be enjoyed today in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.
The Prints & Photographs Division holds 14 booklets of cyanotypes from this project, and also the four editions of The New Education Illustrated, which Johnston co-produced to showcase the photographs and the new methods of teaching that were being introduced at the time.
Micah: Johnston’s Hampton photographs were made with an intent that was partially to document, but also to promote Hampton’s educational model and the progress of the country’s African-American population. Can you talk about how they were displayed at the Paris Exposition?
Jane: Johnston’s photographs were very well-represented at the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world’s fair that drew over 50 million visitors. Her photographs from the D.C. public school system were on view in the Palace of Education, and her photographs from Hampton were displayed prominently in the acclaimed “American Negro Exhibit” in the Palace of Social Economy.
This exhibit aimed to celebrate African-American achievements since the end of the Civil War, and it was organized by three African-American scholars: Daniel A. P. Murray, assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, Thomas J. Calloway, a young lawyer who was the primary organizer of the Exhibit, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois submitted an extensive study of the circumstances of African Americans in Georgia, with albums of photographs and stunning, hand-drawn graphic charts. One of these charts is visible in the installation shot, immediately to the left of Johnston’s Hampton University photographs. Both the charts and the Hampton photographs were mounted on boards and displayed back-to-back in cabinets that had folding leaves.
- Find descriptions of MoMA’s recent book, Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album, and its earlier 1966 publication on the Hampton album in the Library’s online catalog.
- Explore the Library’s Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, including her photographs of educational institutions, portraits, and views abroad, and travel through the South in her work on the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South. Read more about her life and work in our biographical overview and chronology.
- Read more about Johnston in previous Picture This posts on her work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and about visualizing her work on the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.
- View and read about the materials W.E.B. Du Bois assembled for the “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
- Read the Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International Universal Exposition available via Hathi Trust. (Volume 2 contains a report from Thomas Calloway titled, “The Negro Exhibit,” on pages 463-467)