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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture people in candid moments. Sometimes, it's 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, one of America’s first female photojournalists, established her own commercial portrait studio while pursuing a career as a photographic artist. She took this photograph as part of a commission for the Hampton Institute, which was founded after the American Civil War to provide education and practical training to freed slaves and Native Americans.

Johnston was tasked with capturing the students going about their everyday activities. She used glass plate negatives, which required exposure times of several seconds, necessitating her subjects to stay still, and making spontaneous images of the students impossible. Instead, Johnston arranged her subjects in carefully constructed scenes meant to showcase their hard work and virtue.

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

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

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

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

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.

The Hampton Album Goes to Paris
In 1900, 159 of Johnston’s prints of the Hampton Institute were displayed at the “American Negro Exhibit” at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The exhibition, designed to convey an uplifting image of the progress of African Americans since the American Civil War, was organized by author and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois and lawyer Thomas Calloway, and included material provided by many of the nation’s historically black colleges. Though a vociferous critic of vocational and separate-but-equal education for blacks, Du Bois nevertheless praised Johnston’s images.


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