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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Stairway of the Treasurer's Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album

Frances Benjamin Johnston
(American, 1864–1952)

1900. Platinum print, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2" (19.1 x 24.1 cm)

In 1899, Francis Benjamin Johnston, an early photojournalist, was hired to document students at the Hampton Institute, a school that provided vocational training and education for newly freed slaves and Native Americans. These photographs were commissioned to justify the work of the Hampton Institute, and to help raise awareness of and money for the school.

The Hampton Album is an early example of the often ambiguous distinction between photographs that are posed and those that are candid. Johnston’s assignment was to capture the students going about their everyday activities. She used glass plate negatives that required exposure times of several seconds, necessitating her subjects to be still, in effect negating the possibility that these images could be completely spontaneous. Johnston arranged her subjects in carefully constructed scenes to exemplify their hard work and virtue.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

The way a figure is positioned.

A type of journalism that uses photographs to tell a news story.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

The action of exposing a photographic film to light or other radiation.

To request, or the request for, the production of a work of art.

The Hampton Album in Paris
159 prints from the Hampton Album were displayed at the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris International Exposition. The exhibition, which was designed to convey an uplifting image of a race in progress, was organized by African American author and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois and Thomas Galloway, with material provided by many of the nation’s historically black colleges. Du Bois, though a vociferous critic of vocational and separate-but-equal education for blacks, nevertheless praised Johnston’s images.


AUDIO: Curator Sarah Meister discusses Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence, Students at Work