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Estimate: $ 2,500 - $ 3,500
FRANCES BENJAMIN JOHNSTON (1864-1955) The New Woman (self-portrait in her Washington D.C. studio). Silver print, the image measuring 8x9 7/8 inches (20.3x25.1 cm.); partially mounted to a board with a typed caption label from The Sandler Collection on verso. 1896; printed circa 1950 or earlier
In this striking self-portrait Frances Benjamin Johnston's confidence, subversion of norms, and energetic presence are keenly demonstrated throughout the composition. Her crossed ankle, angled openly towards the viewer and revealing bright petticoats and tight-clad leg, beer stein, and stylized handling of her cigarette, all show a woman in full control of herself and her medium. Above her, portraits of men (some identifiable) she photographed decorate the mantle, a collection of objects that declare her success and highlight her gender.
In 1894, just two years prior to making this image, Johnston was described as "the only lady in the business of photography in the city" by the The Washington Times. And clearly, she was conscious of her role as a pioneer for women in photography, telling a reporter in 1893, "It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work." Johnston was one of the first female press photographers in the United States, one of the first women to enjoy a long successful career as a photographer, recording and reporting on events, making portraits of celebrities, Presidents in the White House, and more. She documented architecture, advocating for preservation of historical buildings, and and earned widespread recognition and fame for her work. But, Johnston was not part of artistic circles, and fell out of memory after her death.
Years later, Lincoln Kirstein discovered a bound album of Johnston's photographs made at the Hampton Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a coed preparatory and trade school for African American and Native American students. Kirsten gave the album to the Museum of Modern Art, which identified and reproduced the images in a 1966 book. These images have helped bring her back to the public eye and today are considered among the most important of her contributions. Johnston spent a month photographing the students and classes, and teaching photography to those who were interested. Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Hampton, then asked her to do the same at his Tuskegee Institute. The Hampton photographs were shown at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, receiving a grand prize. Johnston's images continue to spark appreciation and discussion, including being used by artist Carrie Mae Weems to explore themes such as the complexity of assimilation and identity.
Smock & Daniel, A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Frances Benjamin Johnston (Harmony Books), unpaginated
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