Frances Benjamin Johnston, Children in Kernstown. 1900, Library of Congress.
comparison w/James Bland, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny--Sheet Music Cover 1906.
A few years back at the annual meeting of the College Art Association at the Hilton Hotel in New York City, I came across a little lady whom as I recall was distributing from a table a set of illustrations related to the photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston. As it turned out this was Geraldine Wojno Kiefer, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Art History and Art at Shenandoah University. Perhaps the year was 2004. I had just moved back to the New York area, was just beginning to probe the mysteries of the powerpoint application. I was in the process of teaching then my Talking in Pictures course looking at the intersections of race, gender and American photography. It was already clear that Johnston was a major figure in that world for a number of reasons. First because of her historical pictures of students and faculty at historically black colleges, including Tuskegee and Hampton, as well as her major input as a woman photographer at the turn-of-the-century and her participation in photography exhibits at various world's fairs.
I have been browsing the PowerPoint's she gave me that day on and off since then, and picked them up again as the Hampton Album came up in its rightful place alongside Du Bois's Negro Exhibition at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Using Johnston's work has been difficult for me for the simple reason that she was white, and African American photography is by definition something that only an African American can do. Yet here was Johnston right in the middle of photography of historical black schools at the turn-of-the-century. Obviously she was a racial voice (or as some prefer to say for some reason, "racialized"), but was she perhaps on the wrong side of things? Most scholars I have read have concluded as much but I still am not sure whether the subjectivity of the photographer is among the most important things we can say about a photograph. A photograph can be a work of original art but it isn't necessarily. Even if and when it is a work of art, it is also a technological intervention. And, significantly, it is a form of evidence.
Especially Johnston's photographs were decidedly evidential in their conception and execution. In order words, they were deliberately designed to function as evidence. Helping to convince me of this is the study of Kiefer's PowerPoint presentations on Johnston's contribution to a photo-essay called "The Country of Sheridan's Ride" published in The Ladies Home Journal
It is composed of a centerfold layout of a series of pictures houses and landscapes along the route of General Philip Sheridan's 1864 ride to Winchester, along the Valley Turnpike between Winchester and Middletown in Virginia as part of a successful Union campaign in the Civil War.
Johnston's photographs of the roads, lakes, toll bridges, landscapes, houses and children (many of them black) as they were in 1901, participating in a national campaign of memorializing the landscape of the Civil War, honoring the history and commodifying its recovery. Kiefer worries that Johnston was helping to further mystify the racial significance of the Civil War in favor of a racist romanticism emphasizing the healing of relations between white Northerners and Southerners. But the thing I notice about it, as well as much of the celebration of the conclusion of the war prior to 1910, was the focus was on Union victories and a Northern interpretation of events. It seems to me that the David Blight reading of the cult of the Lost Cause is actually something that emerges as a distinct problem subsequent to the successes of Thomas Dixon's plays "The Leopard's Spots" and "The Klansman," and it really explodes with the hit of D.W. Griffith's collaboration with Dixon on The Birth of a Nation.
Left: Log House in Giles County, Photographs, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.
Right: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Photographs. In The Ladies Home Journal, Vol. 18, No. 8 (July 1901), 17.
Left: Henry Fenn, Richmond. Wood Engraving. Picturesque America in The Land We Live In, ed. William Cullen Bryant, Vol. I, New York: D. Appleton Company, 1872, 80.
Center: Harry Fenn, A Glimpse of Charlestown and Boy from the Town of St. Michael's Church. Wood engraving. Picturesque America. Vol I., 201.
Left: Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1st Toll Gate out of Winchester.
Center: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Snicker's Gap, Tollgate. Along the Road. At Stop at a Tollgate. Right: Town, Now Steven's City. Tollgate Road. 1900.
Double Spread Layout in Ladies Home Journal, 1901. Nostalgia for Sheridan's Ride in the Civil War, romanticizing the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the Old South.