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Laura Wexler : Francis Benjamin Johnston

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Laura Wexler Francis Benjamin Johnston didn't start out to be a photographer. She had started out to be a painter. She went to art school like many wealthy, well-trained young women of her time. She went to the Academy in Julienne in Paris. She was there for two years. She came back to Washington, D.C., where she lived, and she started to grow board with American painting. I guess it wasn't as exciting as painting in Paris. She had a lot of family connections, and the editor of Demarest Family Magazine asked her to do a story on the US Mint. The rumor has it she borrowed a camera to do that. She had a lot of pluck. She was a real spitfire actually even from the time she was really young. She went to the Mint. She took photographs. Demarest bought it and she decided she would much rather work for the illustrated magazines than to be a painter.

I'm amazed at how hard she worked. I'm amazed at how often she tracked down any possible connection she would have, an opportunity to take pictures, how much she traveled, how her appetite for recording the people of her day and the events of her day. So there originally were family connections, but Johnston herself envisioned a way to take photographs that would document her era. She was in a good place. She was in Washington, D.C. She worked for Thomas Miley, who was the first photographer at the Smithsonian. They got a commission from the government to photograph at the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893. And she went on from that.

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