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January 13, 2021

The Original Instagram: Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Photobooth, 1903

Popularized during the Civil War, tintypes became the premier photo app of the 19th century. Produced on a blackened metal plate, tintypes cost customers little and took just minutes to be developed. The inexpensive imaging technology spawned a horde of itinerant, often unskilled, photographers called “tintypists.”

Traveling town to town, tintypists set up booths at county fairs, such as the one in 1903 Virginia shown here. Subjects posed next to painted backdrops and paper-mache props, such as stones and fences. For additional fees, the resulting photograph was varnished, tinted, and set in jewelry.

“Look! Look!! Look!!!” Frances Benjamin Johnston, entrepreneur, 1903. (Library of Congress)

Frances Benjamin Johnston (January 15, 1864 – May 16, 1952) was an early American photographer and photojournalist whose career lasted for almost half a century. She is most known for her portraits, images of southern architecture, and various photographic series featuring African Americans and Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1880s, Johnston studied art in Paris and then returned home to Washington, DC, where she learned photography. She quickly established a national reputation as a professional photographer and businesswoman, with growing success in both the art and commercial worlds. Johnston counted presidents, diplomats, and other government officials among her portrait clients, while in her personal life she travelled in more Bohemian circles.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, as one of the first photojournalists, she provided images to the Bain News Service syndicate and wrote illustrated articles for many magazines. Her active roles in pictorialist photo exhibitions and world’s fairs reflect her high level of energy and determination as well as her exceptional photographic talent.

In the 1910s, Johnston began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography, working for a time with photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt in New York City. Johnston also traveled widely in the United States and Europe to research and lecture about the gardens that she photographed.

By the late 1920s, Johnston turned her focus to the systematic photographic documentation of historic buildings in the South. She traveled thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, which aimed to help preserve both vernacular and high style structures. Her vivid building portraits appeared in exhibitions and illustrated several major books. In the 1940s, she moved to New Orleans where she died in 1952


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