The daughter of a U.S. Treasury official, Frances Benjamin Johnston spent her girlhood among Washington’s public figures. When she reached adulthood, she determined to pursue a career, a daring move for a young society woman of the time. In the late 1880s, she began working as a journalist, illustrating her stories with her own drawings. Soon, however, she decided that photographs would work better.
She asked George Eastman for a camera, which he provided. Few people knew how to operate one, so Frances took it to the Smithsonian for instruction. Not long afterward, she opened a studio in Washington.
She pursued stories all over the world and became the first to photograph the camera-shy Adm. George Dewey after presenting him a note from President Theodore Roosevelt. Dewey even turned his ship’s torpedo room over to her to use as a dark room.
She was the first press photographer ever allowed access to the White House. In this capacity, she took the only photo available of the signing of the treaty with Spain to end the Spanish-American war. She photographed Theodore Roosevelt’s children in the White House, and she took many portraits of Washington’s elite, dispensing with stiff formal portraits and portraying them in more relaxed settings.
Frances also took the final photograph of President William McKinley, just 30 minutes before he was assassinated.
At age 50, she began shooting color film of gardens throughout Europe and America. At 60, she undertook a major project, single-handedly filming historically significant buildings and places throughout the American South through an agreement with the Library of Congress. During this period, she was often thought to be a spy and was arrested in some places. At age 85, just three years before her death, she began taking pictures of the architecture of North Carolina.