“An Energetic, Ambitious Woman, With … Ordinary Opportunities”

by Nika

Another famed American photographer who visited the Drish House was Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952).  Frances, or “Fannie”, was a one of the earliest American female photographers and photojournalists.  She was also something of a  ‘character’.



Fannie Johnson was the only surviving child of wealthy and well-connected parents and an independent, strong-willed woman.  She studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris and was given her first camera by George Eastman, the inventor of Eastman Kodak cameras.  She received early training in photography and dark-room techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian Institution.  Still in her twenties, Fannie opened a studio in Washington DC and made many famous portraits, including those of Alice Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. The self-portraits above and below show that she was also not afraid to turn the camera lens on herself.  As her fame and reputation grew, she received more and more important commissions.  Eventually becoming the official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, Mckinley, T.R. Roosevelt and Taft administrations.


In 1897, Fannie published a article in Ladies Home Journal entitled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera.”  Apparently, this woman could do quite a lot.  She urged women to consider careers in photography. “To an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible,” she wrote, adding that “hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.”  Now there is a advice we all need to take!

In the 1920s, Fannie became increasingly interested in photographing architecture, motivated by a desire to document buildings or gardens which were falling into disrepair or threatened by development.  In 1933, she was given a grant by the Carnegie Corporation to document the early architecture of Virginia, and she was to receive five more Carnegie grants to document the architecture of the American South. Collectively these photographs (more than 7,100 images) are referred to as the “Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.”  They are housed at the LIbrary of Congress.


As part of the Carnegie Survey, Fannie visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1939 to photograph the Drish House. Her images are stark and majestic.


Fannie Johnson was named an honorary member of the American institute of Architects for her work to photographing historic buildings.  She moved to New Orleans in 1945, having acquired a love for the South, and she continued working there until her death in 1952.