Esteemed thinker: Frances Benjamin Johnston

johnston 4 I find black and white photography exceptionally aesthetic; for the tones and hues are not described just by their names, but are far reaching…crossing into spectrums that range from dark to light…tipping the scale of extremes that include graying nights to snowy days. Composition and subjects rely on form, strong lines, the distinction of dark and light that are so simply beautiful they need not a rainbow of colors to define image.

And so it was for our early photographers who were the masters of this craft. I find work in what some contemporaries may interpret as slow and cumbersome as invigorating; the darkroom for me was where magic took place, where you could manipulate a picture not through digital technology, but rather with time and your hands. .. where you would hold your breath as a picture slowly came alive floating in a vat of slippery liquid. And then like a dripping handkerchief, hang it up to dry…

Today’s blog I bring you Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864- 1952) a most remarkable woman who gained prominence as a great photographer during a time when women had few rights and men dominated the field. She studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Art Students League, Washington, DC. In 1894 she opened a photography studio and gained international recognition through her photographs of presidents, portraits of the elite, and her work as a photojournalist and architectural photographer.

Mammoth cave
(Mammoth Cave)

In celebration of her artistic prowess, I bring you today an excerpt from “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” by Frances Benjamin Johnston, in Ladies Home Journal dated 1897. Let us reflect on the advice of our esteemed thinker.

“When Distinction and Originality are Aimed at:
To those ambitious to do studio portraiture I should say, study art first and photography afterward , if you aim at distinction and originality. Not that a comprehensive technical training is unnecessary, for, on the contrary a photographer needs to understand his tools as thoroughly as a painter does the handling of his colors and brushes. Technical excellence, however, should not be the criterion where picturesque effect in concerned. In truth, to my mind, the first precept of artistic photography is, “Learn early the immense difference between the photography that is merely a photograph, and that which is also picture… ”

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