Friday is coming early this week! Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) is perhaps best known for this image:
An untitled self-portrait, it is usually referred to as a portrait of Johnston as the “New Woman.” The “New Woman” was a social construct of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when more and more women were seeking out higher education and employment opportunities. “New Women” were supposedly liberated from the confines of the traditionally feminine sphere of domesticity, and their dress and habits reflected the freedom they insisted on seizing. They earned their own money, lived independently, rode bicycles, and some of them even wanted to vote. Johnston certainly epitomizes the “New Woman” in this photograph, with her tankard, cigarette, and exposed ankles, but in reality her life was much more circumscribed by social convention. She grew up in Washington, D.C., in a middle-class family. Her father was employed by the government and her mother was a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. While they were not wealthy, they were well-connected socially. After studying art in Paris, Johnston returned to D.C. and established a photography studio, a business which was greatly assisted by her social connections. She was able to photograph many politicians and society figures, including the Roosevelts.
Johnston’s career spanned six decades, and took her into several other types of photography. The area of her output that connects her to the Hammond-Harwood House is her work with architecturally significant American buildings. She took ten photographs, interior and exterior, of the Hammond-Harwood House in 1939. My favorite is this one of the dining room, which shows the carved “frame” over the mantelpiece as it would have been originally, without a painting in it.
All ten photographs of the Hammond-Harwood House are available on the Library of Congress’s website, as are many other photographs byJohnston. Anderson House in Washington, D.C. is showcasing an exhibition of Johnston’s photographs of their site from May 24 – October of this year if you’d like to see examples of her work in person.