mattie edwards hewitt

JANUARY 15: Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952)

Born in the years of the Civil War, a time which has been bookmarked in American culture by images of death and squalor, Frances Benjamin Johnston arose as one of the first premier woman photographers by infusing life, character, and queerness into her art.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, “Self-Portrait (as New Woman)” 1896 

She was a fiercely independent and creative woman who dabbled in many different areas of the arts until a family friend by the name of George Eastman gave her one of his new, lighter Kodak cameras to try out (that’s right, she was recruited by the inventor of the Kodak camera himself). Immediately Frances was in love. Having found her passion, she went on to be classically trained in photography and dark-room techniques by Thomas Smillie, who was the director of photography at the Smithsonian at the time. By utilizing these connections her wealthy parents had afforded her, Frances ended up touring Europe in the 1890s as a freelance photographer. In 1894, she settled down in Washington D.C. and opened her own photography studio, becoming the only woman photographer in the city. Being in the epicenter of politics and elite society, Frances made a name for herself in D.C., taking portraits of many of the people we now read about in history books, such as Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain, and Alice Roosevelt – just to name a few.

Although she had earned a reputation as a celebrity photographer, Frances’s most inspired work came in the form of her depiction of the “New Woman,” a feminist imagining of women who simultaneously embodied traditionally feminine and masculine aesthetics, and women who threw out traditionally feminine appearances altogether. Frances’s most famous images are self-portraits, one depicting Frances with beer stein and cigar in hand, standing in stark contrast to her revealed petticoat. Another shows Frances completely decked out in men’s clothing, fake mustache and all, holding a bicycle; she used this portrait to mock the public outcries against women riding bicycles at the time, majority of which were rationalized by claiming that riding bicycles forced women to dress in “manly fashions,” which of course, would have eventually led to the downfall of western civilization.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, “Self-Portrait” 1890

The only known romantic relationship in Frances’s life was with Mattie Edwards Hewitt, whose letters/early 20th century sexts to Frances can be read in The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Bettina Berch. The two first met when Mattie was the wife of Arthur Hewitt, a St. Louis based photographer. Mattie worked in her husband’s dark-room and had a penchant for photography herself, and so she and Frances’s creative chemistry soon evolved into a love affair. After Mattie divorced Arthur, she and Frances moved to New York City and opened up the “Johnson-Hewitt Studio” where the two worked on their photography side by side (#relationshipgoals, much?) Both she and Mattie worked steadily throughout both of the World Wars before Frances retired in New Orleans in 1945, leaving behind a legacy of artistic resistance and a life lived unapologetically.

-LC