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

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… ”