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Laura Wexler : Johnston's Photographs of American Life
Laura Wexler Johnston's photographs at the turn of the century tell us that people made choices about what to show of themselves, what to show of their hopes, what parts of conflicts would be the part that they would take. Johnston's photographs show us about the turn of the century how complex it was and the choices that people made amidst that complexity. They show us how active people were in trying to solve the problems, in trying to deal with work in their daily lives, particularly women working. Because they're such beautiful photographs, they show us an artist's vision of the best of what people were. And they show every everybody's wish to show themselves as the best that they were. And sometimes they weren't really up to that.

One of the really most interesting things about Johnston, I think, is that this is a new era for photography. A way of printing photographs in the illustrated press has just been invented, and people like Johnston are trying to figure out now what photography is for. And that's a lot of what the photographs of the miners or the workers in the factories are about. She's getting commissions. She actually has an agent and she's getting commissioned by magazines to discover how you can use a camera to do photo documentary. She's one of the earliest people in that field. So it isn't as if it's her idea to go photograph the miners. It's her willingness to do that in this grand exploration of what a woman's career can be and what photography can mean at the turn of the century. For me, that's as much what they're about. And then when she gets there, she's a very good artist. So she takes these wonderful pictures.

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