Curator, Sarah Meister: Francis Benjamin Johnston was a Washington DC-based photographer. She was hired by a school called The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia to photograph the school. So the Hampton Institute was founded in 1868 and it was originally meant to provide education for recently freed slaves. But soon thereafter Native Americans were also invited to be students.
Each image is really incredibly carefully composed. She sets her camera back at a sufficient distance to get a sense of the classroom, but close enough that you can understand what the students are doing and read the words that are written on the Blackboard. To make these pictures, the students often had to stand still for several seconds, which is not easy to do.
Johnston’s goal was to photograph these students immersed in the process of learning, so they very rarely look at the camera in her photographs. Yet at the same time, it’s important to remember where many of these students came from in the Deep South, there might have been terribly tragic consequences for even looking at a white woman directly in the eye.
The Hampton Institute was committed to what was then considered a progressive educational model. These students were being trained to be teachers and farmers. Within a very short period of time several African-American leaders pointed out the limited aspirations of this educational model. So in the decades that followed Hampton reevaluated its vocational approach and has become a leading university.