Frances Benjamin Johnston, The Hampton Album ed. Sarah Hermanson Meister

JTF (just the facts): Published by the Museum of Modern Art in 2019, this marks the first time that Frances Benjamin Johnston’s album of photographs, taken in 1899 but assembled later, has been published in its entirety. MoMA is releasing two editions. The trade hardcover edition (here) is 192 pages and 9 x 12 inches; it is $50. The deluxe edition (here) is 312 pages and 9 ¾  x 13 ½ inches, closer to the dimensions of the original publication. It is $175. Both have 173 illustrations. (Cover and spread shots of the trade edition below.)

Comments/Context: Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) deserves an HBO Series or at the very least commemoration on a postage stamp. Born during the Civil War, the only surviving child of well-to-do parents, she grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father was a high-ranking official in the Treasury Department and her mother one of the first women journalists to write on national affairs; under a pseudonym she was also a drama critic for the Baltimore Sun.

Like an Edith Wharton heroine, young Frances had ambition as well as advantages. Privately tutored as a child, she went on to graduate from Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies before sailing to Paris to study drawing and painting at the Académie Julien. Back in D.C., she took more art classes at the Washington Students League and in the mid-1880s developed an interest in photography. Her parents arranged for instruction with the eminent Thomas Smillie, the first official photographer and curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. Through contacts he provided, she traveled in Europe and met leading artists of the day.

By 1893 she was accomplished enough to be named an official photographer at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The next year she opened her own portrait studio in Washington, the only woman photographer there at the time. Family connections gave her access to President McKinley’s circle and to other members of the city’s social and political elite. (She would later become White House photographer for three other presidents and a sought-after portraitist of celebrities.) Magazines commissioned her to write as well as photograph. Her range was democratic. She contributed images to news services on workers in West Virginia coal mines and New England mills and made several albums on the lives of students who attended colleges that educated the disadvantaged. Her work was admired by Alfred Stieglitz and included in his influential publication Camera Notes. The latter half of her 60-year career was largely devoted to the photography of historic architecture and gardens in Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, and Louisiana. Her archive upon her death numbered some 10,000 negatives and prints.

Johnston had money and status all her life and so could afford to be unconventional; indeed, it was her calling card. In a much-reproduced 1896 self-portrait as “The New Woman,” she sits in profile holding a cigarette and beer stein, her stockinged legs crossed high to expose a ribbon of petticoat. In an even cheekier self-portrait, she is dressed as a man, wearing trousers and a fake moustache. Her advocacy for women was heartfelt and took several forms. Articles she published in the 1890s urged them to take up photography as an art or profession and offered practical advice. (“Good work should command good prices, and the wise woman will place a paying value upon her best efforts,” she wrote in 1897. “It is a mistaken business policy to try and build up trade by doing something badly cheaper than somebody else.”)

A landmark exhibition of 28 women photographers that she co-curated for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris traveled to Russia and Washington. She never married, and her most intimate relationships seem to have been with other women. After 1940 her base of operations was a house, which she called “Arkady,” at 1132 Bourbon St. in New Orleans. Her efforts to document the architecture of the French Quarter and Garden District with her view camera fed the preservation movement in the city. She died there, in the middle years of the Korean War, at the age of 88.

Despite a long life marbled with color, incident, and achievement, she is unreasonably obscure. The New York Times did not bother with an obituary. Sexism is, of course, one of the suspected causes for the neglect. But perhaps another is that she published articles and essays instead of popular books, and had no children or widow to argue for her posthumous importance. She is decades overdue for a substantial museum exhibition. It has been more than 50 years since she had even a modest one.

We can be thankful therefore for this MoMA monograph on what is her only prominent body of work: an album of 159 platinum prints made at the Hampton Institute in 1899. The museum exhibited 43 of these photographs in 1966, publishing a 56-page paperback catalog, with 44 images printed in gravure, that is out-of-print. The recent Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern exhibition this year also displayed a small selection.

It was Kirstein who rediscovered her, coming upon the anonymous leather-bound album in a Washington, DC bookstore during World War II. When he showed the album to John Szarkowski in 1965 for possible exhibition, MoMA’s young department director sent the curator Grace Mayer to the Hampton Institute to try to learn the name of the author. When she came back and reported that the photographer was Frances Benjamin Johnston, neither Kirstein nor Szarkowski had heard of her.

Sarah Hermanson Meister has done a fine job of explicating the backstory of the album’s genesis and untangling the knotted history of the prints—some were from negatives taken by others—although, as she admits, it’s still not clear “why the album was made, or for whom.” MoMA’s is the most complete set, with Harvard, Hampton, and the Library of Congress also having large ones.

The Hampton Institute was founded by Protestant missionaries in 1868 as the Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School (it is now Hampton University) for the purpose of educating ex-slaves and free blacks after the Civil War. In 1878 the administrators expanded these opportunities to Native Americans.

Hampton’s most famous alumnus was Booker T. Washington, who had been born a slave and worked his way through school doing menial jobs. Applying what he had learned, he went on in 1881 to found a school of his own, the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. He was only 25. His belief that advancement by his people, only recently emancipated, lay in self-reliance and practical, hands-on knowledge, based on the agricultural economy of the South, was viewed as the best way forward by many progressives, especially white business interests. A speech he gave in Atlanta in 1895, which seemed to assuage the oppressive forces of Jim Crow rather than vigorously battle them in the streets and courts, made him a national spokesman for rational compromise and would later turn him into the nemesis of Northern activists such as W.E.B. Dubois, who decried the accommodating words of what he called “the Atlanta Compromise.” By the turn-of-the-century Washington had replaced Frederick Douglass as the most famous African-American in the country.

The photographs in the Hampton Album were commissioned to illustrate Washington’s educational philosophy and to be exhibited in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1900. Washington (along with Dubois and others) had been asked to organize a section at this international event that would highlight social reform movements in the U.S. The title they chose, “The American Negro Exhibit,” may sound zoological. But considering that many Europeans had only a faint or skewed notion of what post-Civil War black Americans looked like, much less that they were eager for higher education, the exhibit succeeded in shattering stereotypes.

In planning her photographs, Johnston seems to have followed what Meister calls a “script” outlined by the school’s administration in a leaflet titled The Southern Workman: “The exhibit which Hampton is preparing to send to the Paris Exposition…will consist of a series of pictures showing the relation of the various subjects in the school’s curriculum to the center one of agriculture….It is part of the plan of the exhibit to contrast the new life among the Negroes and Indians with the old, and then show how Hampton has helped to produce the change.” The photographs were thus part of an advertising campaign designed to promote the school, its system of education, and the prospect of a bright future for even the most historically deprived groups in post-Civil War America.

The sociological details of the photographs have received much of the attention from scholars, and rightly so. After a pair of facing portraits of the school’s leading lights (both white men) and an establishing shot across water of the main campus buildings in a double-spread, we are introduced to the students seated en masse in the Memorial Chapel. What one notices straight-away is the Victorian dress code—young men in coats and vests, women in starched dresses and high collars—and their uniformly serious demeanor.

This group portrait is followed by several individual pictures that are cringe-inducing—“Before” and “After” studies of Native Americans or African-Americans, men and women, “old folks” and babies. They are first photographed in shabby clothes or surroundings prior to receiving the benefits of a Hamptons education. Then, on the facing pages, they are transformed by its instruction into sober, handsomely dressed, well-groomed, prosperous Americans. A shack on the verge of collapse with a tethered mule is contrasted with a “model barn” at Hampton, complete with a horse and two cows. Two children with bicycles stand in front of a big white clapboard house with a porch and a yard—a place owned by a “Hamptons graduate,” says the caption. On the opposite page, an old couple sits in front of a run-down “old-time cabin,” where a man chops wood beside a goat. We are invited to share in the mockery of the papoose and tipi as backward traditions, unworthy of anyone living on the cusp of a new century. The message is clear: Hampton is bringing civilization to people who have not enjoyed it until now, and those people  ignore its philanthropy at their peril.

The main group of photographs in the album, though, don’t have this scolding tone, even if the intent remains didactic. Quietly boasting about the range of classes available, the captions and photographs show groups of industrious students learning everything from arithmetic, geography, physiology, chemistry, history, physics, and economics to wood shop, printing, carpentry, and bricklaying. Johnston shows us that Hampton had a band, a choir, a guitar and mandolin club, an “Indian Orchestra,” a course on composing music, women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s sports teams. Art instruction included watercolor, drawing, and modeling in clay. As the curriculum was modeled on Washington’s ideas, however, the bulk of the album describes the many areas of agriculture that students were exposed to, from studying marsh plants, roots, and seeds to butter making and mixing fertilizer.

The racial paternalism is hard to miss. Most of the teachers in the classrooms are white. Exceptions are a young black man in a kitchen explaining butchered cuts of meat to a group of black women; and an older black man instructing a small class of “post-graduates in telephone construction.” As Meister points out in her essay, despite the emphasis on know-how, some of the trades being taught—blacksmithing, for example—were already becoming obsolete.

For its time and place, though, Hampton Institute was certainly progressive. As striking as the crisp, formal attire of the students is the gender equality of the student body. Co-education was no means the norm at private colleges in the late 19th century. Another surprising feature is that all of the African-American men and women have “natural” hair. The fashion of straightening had begun in the 1870s and become an urban trend. Not here. Nor has Johnston lightened the skin of her subjects in the printing, as might have been a temptation in preparing an exhibition for a European audience.

The Hampton Album resembles a college yearbook, with its myriad activities but without any trace of individuality among those attending the school. Neither the students nor the teachers are named. Not a laugh or a smile can be detected on the faces of anyone, perhaps on orders from Johnston who wanted the photographs to impart an atmosphere of quiet order and steady application.

This impersonality, which may seem authoritarian, also gives the series a modern aura. Her compositions were not typical of the day. In the most reproduced print from the Album, showing students building a stairway at the Treasurer’s Residence, the six male figures stand, crouch, and bend as though as though carved in shallow relief against the unpainted wooden spindles and the white wall paneling. The geometry of their artfully placed bodies calls to mind paintings by Léger or Balthus.

Her frames were usually packed with human and mechanical forms. Chalk diagrams on blackboards appear in several pictures. My guess is that these writings weren’t left there from earlier classroom discussions but that she asked for them to be added as another pictorial element she could play with. After studying the photograph titled “Physics: The screw as applied to the cheese press,” one notices pairs of faces and hands unexpectedly peeking through the open wooden armature of this piece of farm machinery. This group is balanced by a smaller cluster that sits around a table; they are softly illuminated from the side and angled toward the central woman seated at the cheese press. More than half the glass-plate negatives were exposed in dimly lighted interiors. Johnston’s subjects may have held these poses for 10 seconds or longer so that she could choreograph her sometimes absurdist pantomimes. As in the photographs of Irving Penn or Jeff Wall, there is nothing haphazard in Johnston’s mise-en-scène. Her strict control isn’t perverse either. It serves her (and the school’s) vision of these young men and women as calm and purposeful, the equals of white Americans and Europeans in intelligent determination.

Reception of the MoMA exhibition and catalog in 1966, at the height of the Black Power movement, reflected racial tensions of the era. A petulant reviewer in the New York Times Book Review called the photographs “precious, nostalgic propaganda,” while a writer in the local Hampton newspaper worried that his contemporaries would see that the people who had posed for Johnston as “being too ‘Uncle Tom.’”

These reactions, though harsh, aren’t unjustified. Discomfort is the reflex response when looking at the almost cartoonish photograph of a Native American in a Sioux headdress, standing awkwardly in front of a stuffed bald eagle, holding a peace pipe, before a group of bewildered students for a “class in American history”; or a young African-American woman in a maid’s outfit holding a tray by the dining room door in a scenario titled “Serving the dinner.”

The publication also raises questions that should be further investigated. Meister’s essay doesn’t mention Johnston’s racial or political attitudes; knowing something about them might allow us to better decipher the motives behind the images. We can’t even be sure if the Hampton students were dressed so formally for the photographer solely for this particular occasion—because they were being groomed for exhibition in Paris—or whether they had (as I would suspect) less buttoned-up uniforms in their closets. By the time the album was exhibited at MoMA, most of the students here would have died. Still, their names should be known from school records. Learning how some of them fared in later life, and what they thought of their time at Hampton, would deepen understanding of the photographs.

It is difficult but not impossible to separate Johnston’s skills as an artist from the attitudes of the administrators that directed the pictures she was supposed to make here. Nothing about them suggests that she was just fulfilling a paid assignment. Quite the contrary. Her commitment to the mission of Hampton seems genuine. She later created a similar album for Tuskegee; it was received so gladly by the school that she was asked to do another. Her words of uplift for women photographers in the articles she wrote for magazines bear an uncanny resemblance in tone to those of Washington’s for African-American audiences.

Hampton was educating the children of slaves, many of whose parents had been forbidden to read and write, and deprived of basic comforts and the right to own property. No wonder these photographs stress the fundamentals of clean water and raising food. If the missionaries who founded this school and others overseas now seem small-minded, culturally arrogant or benighted, or worse, especially those who taught Native Americans to be ashamed of their own history and to adopt the habits of modern white America as their salvation, their motives can’t be sweepingly condemned. They wanted to raise people out of poverty and illiteracy, to make sure they didn’t have to endure more years of servitude, as seemed to be their political fate in the South and on some reservations at the end of the 19th century. However complicated our reactions may be to The Hampton Album, it’s basically a hopeful document. There isn’t anyone—in front of the camera, behind it, or scripting the scenes—who isn’t thinking that the people in these photographs are deserving of a better life.

Collector’s POV: Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photographs and albums are largely held in public collections and rarely appear at auction. As such, the usual discussion of gallery representation and recent secondary market results has been omitted.

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