Published: July 8, 2011
In May 1910, Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed one of Washington’s grandest homes, Anderson House, which had taken its place on Massachusetts Avenue in 1905 and been furnished in the several years that followed.
Johnston, who helped advocate for photography’s acceptance as an art form, would become one of the first American women to achieve distinction as a photographer. This summer, the Society of the Cincinnati celebrates Johnston’s work with an exhibition of more than 20 of her images of Anderson House. On view through October 1, the exhibition chronicles both the photographer’s techniques and the original appearance of the historic house, allowing visitors a glimpse of how the Andersons lived in the mansion.
In all her work, Johnston strived to create “picturesque effects,” which required “good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work,” as she described in an 1897 article for Ladies’ Home Journal. Her 60-year career encompassed photojournalism, portraiture, architectural and landscape photography and projects furthering social causes.
From the 1880s into the 1910s, she maintained her home and studio on V Street, NW, in Washington. Johnston’s landmark photographs of African American students at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, 1900, and her survey of colonial American structures in the South, 1926, are among her most important works.
Presumably commissioned by Larz and Isabel Anderson for their private use, these photographs have never before been published or exhibited together. They are drawn from a collection of 97 large, folio-size gelatin silver prints in two original albums, preserved in the society’s library. Johnston’s photographs of Anderson House, like her work in other private residences, highlight architectural details, the use of natural light, angled compositions and the context of a building.
She also sought to capture a sense of the personalities who occupied the spaces, so that her architectural photographs become portraits, in a sense, as well. Johnston, after all, saw a house as an extension of its owners, as she expressed in a 1937 lecture: “When you build a house, you make a record of yourself, and experts in houses can tell by the house you build and live in what kind of person your are&†The story of houses is the story of the people that made them.”
The Anderson house is at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. For information, 202-785-2040.
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