Frances Benjamin Johnston Stairway of the Treasurer's Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album 1899-1900

  • Not on view

Johnston was a professional photographer, noted for her portraits of Washington politicians and her images of coal miners, ironworkers, and women laborers in New England textile mills. In 1899, Hampton Institute commissioned her to make photographs at the school for an exhibition about contemporary African American life that was to be shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900. This picture exemplifies Johnston’s classical sense of composition and her practice of carefully arranging her subjects. Her complete control over the scene is readily apparent, yet the grace of the men’s poses—evenly bathed in natural light—seems to justify her artifice.

Hampton Institute had been established in Hampton, Virginia, in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, when the educator and philanthropist Samuel C. Armstrong persuaded the American Missionary Association to fund a school for the vocational training of African Americans. Armstrong admired the “excellent qualities and capacities” of the freed black soldiers who had fought in the war under his command, and he believed that education was essential to them if they were to achieve productive independence.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

These photographs by one of America’s first woman photojournalists document the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, which was founded after the Civil War to provide education and practical training to African Americans and Native Americans. Johnston’s images, composed to showcase the students’ hard work and virtue, were commissioned by the school to promote the aspirational goals of the curriculum. However, this educational model was quickly criticized for reinforcing segregation and assimilation.

Gallery label from 2019
Platinum print
7 9/16 × 9 9/16" (19.2 × 24.3 cm)
Gift of Lincoln Kirstein
Object number

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