Frances Benjamin Johnston and portraits

Johnston 3 It is remarkable to think that there are very few things in the tangible world and even non-tangible world that are not or cannot be photographed. And though it seems today that everyone has access to a camera, thanks to technology making it conceivably accessible, there was a time where this was not the case. Painted portraits were the fashion and it was not uncommon to commission an artist to paint a portrait of yourself or family members… all for posterity, of course.

And then we had the introduction to the camera in 1839 where sitting for a portrait in a photography studio became the “vogue” thing to do. However, unbeknownst to many today, sitting before the camera was quite unlike what we are used to; but rather an often unpleasant experience. If you ever wondered why the folks back in the “old days” were seemingly less smiley and donning a most stern expression, it could be because they had to hold a pose for what we would consider terminable! In the inception, exposure time for photographic plates could be at long as 20 minutes…sometimes longer. To get a clear image those being photographed had to sit very still…often in the sun! It wasn’t until the 1890s when process photography became available and easy to handle thanks to Eastman Kodak (1888); who began selling hand-held cameras… whereby picture taking was now in the hands of those who could purchase one.

So, I bring back for today’s blog our esteemed thinker: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Her artistic eye and inginuity opened the world of photography up for many women to become entrepreneurs. Her advice, lectures, and creative endeavors are still worthy to take pause in the 21st century. So especially for you portrait photographers, here is a bit of advice from Ms. Johnston. Andrew Carnegie_johnston Portrait of Andrew Carnagie

Sitters Before the Camera
“As to the actual work under a skylight, only a few general hints may be given, as here each must “work out her own salvation.” Do not attempt to pose people, or to strain our sitters into uncomfortable or awkward position, in order to obtain picturesque effects. Watch them, and help them into poses that are natural and graceful. Study their individuality striving to keep the likeness, and yet endeavoring to show them at their best. Avoid emphasizing the peculiarities of a face either by lighting or pose; look for curves rather than angles for straight lines, and try to make the interest in the picture center upon what is most effective in your sitter. The one rule of lighting is never to have more than a single source of light. Many portraits, otherwise good, are rendered very inartistic by being lighted for several different directions…”

men portrait_Johnston Portrait of a few gents last portrait of mckinley_johnston Last portrait of President Mckinley

2 thoughts on “Frances Benjamin Johnston and portraits

  1. She understood that photography, is both science and art combined. Her work is remarkable, considering the limitations of the tools at her disposal. I wonder if she would review her view on the “One Light” rule today?
    Very enjoyable read.

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