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A gift from George Eastman

January 15, 2005 1:07 am

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FRANCES Benjamin Johnston, who photographed Fredericksburg in the late 1920s, was born in 1864 in Rochester, N.Y., into a well-to-do family with strong ties to Washington's powerful.

Frances, one of four children, was the only one who survived childhood. While still a young lady, her family settled in West Virginia to be closer to the political and social scene of the nation's capital. Although she lived a privileged lifestyle, Frances was a headstrong young lady who wished to choose her own path in life.

An early self-portrait shows her holding a cigarette and beer stein, with her skirts elevated to show both her legs and petticoats, all of which countered acceptable behavior for young ladies of the time. She was not interested in the usual social rituals engaged in by young women of her generation. Frances was determined to make her own way, rather than rely on a husband's achievements to define who she was.

She acquired her spunk honestly. Her mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, was a leading political journalist of her day. In the 1870s, she wrote chatty yet pointed articles about congressional activities, as well as any other Washington tidbits she could come by, for the Baltimore Sun.

As the only surviving child of affluent parents, Frances was able to study art at the Academie Julian in Paris and at the Washington Students League in the District of Columbia. Her art training would become evident in her later work; her photographs had the overall composition of works of fine art.

She began her professional career writing for periodicals, and writing and illustrating her freelance articles. An avid genealogist, she also spent many hours researching her family history.

When she took up photography, she first made portraits of friends and family members. Her first camera was received from Eastman Kodak Co. founder George Eastman, a close family friend. She wrote to him asking about his newer, lighter-weight camera, and was given the camera in response.

She received training in her field from Thomas Smillie, then director of photography at the Smithsonian Institution, who educated her about the use of her camera and darkroom procedures on site at the museum. In the 1890s, Frances toured Europe, using her connection to Smillie to visit various prominent photographers and gather items for the museum's collections.

She served for a time as a Washington liaison for newly formed Eastman Kodak, forwarding film and serving as a customer service representative when lenses or cameras needed repairs. In this role, she gained firsthand working knowledge of her craft and the fine details of her equipment.

Johnston began to take photographs on a professional, freelance basis. As she knew many of the elite of her time, she was commissioned by magazines to do celebrity portraits. She eventually would document life at the White House for five administrations. Her images captured first families, staff, visitors and architectural details of the Executive Mansion. Her portraits earned her the title of "photographer to the American court."

When one recalls the images of prominent people of the turn of the century, such as Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Joel Chandler Harris or Susan B. Anthony, chances are very good that the remembered photograph was created by Johnston. Photojournalism was a popular field for young women at the time, but Johnston would excel in her chosen profession, becoming a pioneer in her field.

Her career began in earnest when she was in her 30s, and took her around the world, documenting famous and not-so-famous people, mansions, palaces, homes and log cabins.

She also created studies of coal miners, ironworkers and women workers in New England's mills.

In 1899, Johnston was commissioned by Booker T. Washington to photograph the buildings and students of the Hampton Institute in Virginia. These photographs are masterpieces of composition, showing students at work and study, and creating a photographic documentary of their day-to-day lives at the school.

She did the same for the Tuskegee Institute soon after. Tuskegee was so pleased with her work that she returned to do a second series of photographs.

Her career mandated that she travel the world to photograph news events such as world's fairs, peace-treaty signings and other politically oriented happenings. Johnston took the last portrait of President William McKinley, at the Pan American Exposition of 1901 just before his assassination. She also took numerous photographs of workers printing money at the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington, sailors giving and getting tattoos aboard ship, and classroom scenes.

In 1910, she started to focus more on architecturally inspired photographs. Along this line, she also focused on landscape and gardening scenes. In the 1920s, Johnston documented elaborate estates in America and abroad. She became an expert on the history of horticulture and landscape architecture. This work served as a catalyst for her best-known efforts.

During her trips, Johnston began to notice that many of the structures that were important both historically and architecturally were quickly falling into ruin. She felt an urgent need to make a pictorial record of these rapidly disappearing structures and landscapes.

Today, her photographs are a priceless asset for architects, historians, students, horticulturists and preservationists alike. Her images show past lifestyles and the forgotten glory of the lost structures of many regions.

Most poignant are her collections of photographs of the South. In 1927 she was in Fredericksburg, and from that point on she became a Southerner enamored of the poignant beauty of romantic, crumbling estates and of a lifestyle that was rapidly fading away.

Mrs. Daniel B. Devore of Chatham, in southern Stafford County across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, was of the same mind-set. She commissioned Johnston to make a photographic record of the area.

Johnston took on the task with great enthusiasm, creating a wonderful record of the area's treasures, from elegant mansions to storefronts, warehouses, workers' houses and shacks. In the case of many of these structures, the resulting photographs are all that remains today to recall the streetscapes and feel of Fredericksburg's past.

The result of her work was presented to the general public at no charge in May 1928. The exhibition was held at Town Hall, today the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

The exhibit was titled "Pictorial Survey--Old Fredericksburg, Virginia--Old Falmouth and Nearby Places" and described as "A Series of Photographic Studies of the Architecture of the Region Dating by Tradition from Colonial Times to Circa 1830." Its brochure explained that the survey was "Made for Mrs. Daniel B. Devore, of Chatham, as An Historical Record and to Preserve Something of the Atmosphere of An Old Virginia Town."

Included were 247 images of the area. Their range was extensive, including the most elegant homes of the time: Brompton, Kenmore, the Doggett House and its Quarters, the Sentry Box, Federal Hill, Fall Hill and others.

Storefronts such as the "John Paul Jones House" were featured, as well as the warehouses of Sophia Street. Ferry Farm photographs showed the surveyor's office and views of the Rappahannock River from the site. Johnston documented the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop before, during and after its restoration.

Small neighboring frame cottages, since demolished, are preserved for eternity by Johnston's photos--their design and architectural elements, including fish-scale shingled roofs, reminiscent of Williamsburg, etched in vivid detail. The Mary Washington House and the Rising Sun Tavern also were included in her study.

Workers' cottages, stone warehouses and sites that were well known at the time but have since been lost, such as Gunnery Springs and the Falls Cottage, remain for future generations in these poignant images.

The Fredericksburg exhibition was a resounding success, and brought even more recognition to Johnston's quest for preservation of soon-to-be-lost sites. Publicity from the display prompted the University of Virginia, the Library of Congress and other institutions to take notice of her work.

The university hired Johnston to document its buildings. Edward Campbell, head of U.Va.'s architecture department, directed her to other sites in the surrounding countryside.

The state of North Carolina requested her services to create a photographic record of its architectural history.

Louisiana hired Johnston to document its huge inventory of rapidly deteriorating plantations and other treasures. The result of these efforts is heartbreaking images of once-magnificent structures, many of which were in their final moments when Johnston took their portraits so many years ago. This collection is available online today.

Johnston also provided the illustrations for Henry Irving Brock's "Colonial Churches in Virginia," published in the early 1930s. For this project, she persuaded Williamsburg's governing board to chop down some trees that blocked the shot she wanted to take of the churchyard of Bruton Parish Church.

As one result of her increased notoriety, she was contacted by the Carnegie Corp. of New York, which gave her a grant in 1933 to document Virginia's early architecture. The quest was much more than could be completed in just one year's time, so in her final report Johnston requested more funding, saying there was a great "urgency" to secure photographic records of the sites before it was "too late."

"Many places are in a state of great dilapidation, with walls crumbing, roofs falling in, occupied by the poorest of the poor--tenants usually of indifferent owners; or by contrast more completely destroyed by so-called 'improvements,'" she wrote.

Her pleas and photographs so touched the Carnegie administrators that they awarded her a series of grants over the next several years to document early structures of not only Virginia but also eight other Southern states. The only stipulation was that her work and negatives be given to the Library of Congress for the public's use.

Earlier, Johnston had donated her other architectural documentation to the library, so this request was in keeping with her personal wishes. Her donation was the foundation of the library's Pictorial Archives of Early American Architecture. The Historic American Building Survey and other important architectural studies were later included in this collection.

Between 1933 and 1939, Johnston covered more than 12,000 miles annually in her quest to capture the rapidly vanishing icons of America's past. She was getting on in years, and now traveled with a driver. A photograph taken in North Carolina in 1938 shows her standing beside her car, preparing to go off on yet another journey. This photo is believed to have been taken by Huntley Ruff, her driver and assistant.

In her race against time, Johnston contacted anyone she could think of: local historians, architects, residents. She pored over land grants, verifying records. Even though she was in her 70s, she was relentless in her travels, rediscovering places that had been forgotten for decades.

Johnston was particular and professional in her approach to a subject. Well into her 80s, she was known to lie on her back on a hard floor in order to capture just the right angle on a ceiling adornment. One of her photos can tell more about a site than a dozen from another source.

The lighting is perfect. The perspective is perfect. Her work is of the highest quality.

Johnston would stand atop boxcars or trucks to get the right view. She would ask city policemen to hold up or detour traffic while she took her photographs. When shooting a private home, she would shoo the family out so she could settle in and concentrate on her art.

For Frances Benjamin Johnston, photography was truly an art of the highest form.

Her efforts produced a collection of more than 10,000 images documenting for future generations examples of early American architecture. Her photographs enlightened the public about the importance of architectural preservation--decades before that became widely popular.

Some of her works document structures later lost to natural disasters. Such is the tragic story of Greenwood Plantation in Louisiana.

This hauntingly beautiful mansion was photographed by Johnston in 1938, and in 1960 fell victim to a fire that destroyed it. The mansion is gone, but in her photograph it still lives on--an elegant home with two-story columns, set back far from the camera, two moss-draped trees reflected in a small pond in the foreground.

When John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Henry Ford were planning their restoration projects in Williamsburg and Greenfield Village, Mich., respectively, they sought her advice. Her expertise as an architectural and landscape photographer proved invaluable to both of these endeavors.

In addition, Johnston personally strove to increase public awareness of preservation, encouraging local residents to rally around a particular endangered site or urging that entire areas be named preservation zones--the predecessors of today's historic districts.

She was aware that preserv- ing and showcasing what was unique to an area would increase tourism, bringing financial gain to struggling areas.

With her extensive social, political and industrial contacts, she spearheaded preservation efforts during her time. She was approached to work with the Historic American Buildings Survey, a project inspired by her own earlier efforts. The project was a joint effort of the Library of Congress, the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Johnston trained and worked closely with most of the project's photographers.

Her reputation as a leader in her field was due to her willingness to do the legwork necessary to locate historical structures and to the fact that she knew how to photograph a building in a manner appreciated by historians and architects alike.

Johnston's greatest asset was that when she came to town she generated huge press coverage. Johnston was a publicist's dream come true. She gave speeches and press conferences that were directed to the audience at hand. She felt that the only way to save "old buildings of anonymous places" was to generate grass-roots enthusiasm.

For her achievements, Johnston was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. Her collections have been purchased by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Numerous universities have her collections in their libraries.

Her works are used by historians, preservationists, brick masons, scholars, architects, architectural review boards and numerous other professionals and individuals interested in our country's architectural and cultural past. Her contributions to the preservation of America's history are extensive and priceless.

World War II gas rationing forced an end to Johnston's journeys, but she continued her preservation efforts with lectures and books until her death in 1952 at 88.

In 1945 she relocated one last time, leaving her home in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood and moving to New Orleans. In the ensuing years she visited friends in Virginia, but settled into a bohemian lifestyle in the Deep South.

In contrast to her well-publicized life, her death drew little press coverage. Her death on March 16, 1952, was reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune with an incorrect date of death and misinformation as to her schooling. Her body was cremated, and she was buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, as she had wished. Her photographic legacy was safely preserved at the Library of Congress.

Johnston's work is considered the finest of its kind. She was an awe-inspiring, dedicated professional and a true pioneer in women's rights, photography and historic preservation. Her awareness of the fragility of our past and her intense efforts to preserve that which was fast disappearing around her gave us a gift beyond compare.

Locally, she gave us a priceless record of our past--both lost and remaining--in her timeless photographs.

Frances Benjamin Johnston was a true pioneer and a treasure to those among us who work to preserve our heritage.

DONNA CHASEN is a member of the board of directors of the Spotsylvania Preservantion Foundation and a founding board member of the Fredericksburg Regional Preservation Trust. She may be reached for questions or comments at saveidlewild@yahoo.com.





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