Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Album: A Researcher’s Exploration

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.

Students at work on a house built largely by them. Photo (platinum print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1899 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.57443.

Students at work on a house built largely by them. Photo (platinum print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1899 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.57443

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.

Student shipbuilders at Newport News, Virginia. Photo (platinum print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1899 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c32387

Student shipbuilders at Newport News, Virginia. Photo (platinum print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1899 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c32387

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.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of fireplace. Photo (gelatin silver print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38981

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of fireplace. Photo (gelatin silver print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38981

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!

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man. Photo (albumen silver print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1890 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04884

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length self-portrait dressed as a man. Photo (albumen silver print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1890 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04884

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.

A field trip to the Library of Congress. Photo (cyanotype print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899? //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.00817

A field trip to the Library of Congress. Photo (cyanotype print) by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899? //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.00817

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.

Cover, The New Education Illustrated by Edith C. Westcott with photographs from life by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Number 1 - Primary. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04828

Cover, The New Education Illustrated by Edith C. Westcott with photographs from life by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Number 1 – Primary. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04828

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.

Exhibit of the American negroes at the Paris exposition. Illustration from The American monthly review of reviews, vol. XXII, no. 130 (1900 November), p. 576. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04826

“Exhibit of the American Negroes at the Paris Exposition.” Illustration from The American Monthly Review of Reviews, vol. XXII, no. 130 (1900 November), p. 576. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.04826

The Georgia Negro A social study. Chart (ink and watercolor on board) prepared by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33863

The Georgia Negro A social study. Chart (ink and watercolor on board) prepared by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33863

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Gene McAvoy
    December 19, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    Great portrait by the fireplace. Loved the ‘radical’ look with the stein and the ‘leg’ shot. Would any of you researchers have a clue who the 6 gentlemen on her mantle would have been. A great research challenge!

    Keep up the good work – wish I were still working at the LOC now. Best short term contract I ever had.

  2. Micah Messenheimer
    December 31, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Gene—Thank you for the research challenge. Our division chief Helena Zinkham helped me to identify the six men based on portraits in the Frances Benjamin Johnston collection. Unfortunately, most have not yet been digitized, but they are among the portraits in this sub-collection: //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/88707449/.

    On the left is poet Bliss Carman. To his right is A. N. Brown, likely the librarian at the U.S. Naval Academy.

    The next man poses more of a conundrum. On the reverse of his portrait he is named as Henry Guston Rogers. I wasn’t able to identify anyone with that name, however there is a Henry G. Rogers resident of Washington, DC., originally of Naples, Italy listed in the 1890 U.S. Census as a “Promoter of Inventions.” This is probably Henry Gustave Rogers, who filed patents for an electric toy and an automatic vending machine in 1889, obtained copyright for a one-act comedic play, “Money Due,” in 1896, and was a member of the Cosmos Club from 1884-1900. The middle name seems similar enough to have been confused for Guston, either by Johnston or when later being described at the Library.

    In the ornate frame is James Rush Marshall, a Washington, DC architect and partner in the firm Hornblower & Marshall. Continuing to the right is Frank Phister, described as a librarian at the Smithsonian and clerk at the Indian Bureau. Johnston clipped an article on Phister’s suicide in 1896 that was kept with his photograph. The final portrait depicts L. M. McCormick, a photographer and member of the Capital Camera Club.

    Apart from all of the pictures having been made by Johnston, the questions of what link these six men and why they are so prominently displayed on her mantle remain unanswered. Perhaps this is a topic to be explored in a future blog post!

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