The Woman Behind the Lens

by David L. Jacobs

Bettina Berch, Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2000.


Vivian Patterson, ED. Williams College and Aperature, 2000

Frances Benjamin Johnston constructed two very different self-portraits in 1896. In The Proper Victorian, Johnston, about 32 years ofcf, poses in the style of a society photograph, a genre in which she devel­oped a large reputation amongst political and high society women in Washington. Johnston decks herself in furs and an elaborate hat. Her head rests on a gloved hand as she peers directly into the camera with an expression that combines
haughtiness, intelligence and perhaps a hint of vulnerability. In the other self-portrait, Johnston is the Proper Vic­torian's polar opposite: she sits before a fireplace holding a beer stein in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her legs are casually crossed, prominently displaying petticoats and an ample sweep of calves. She looks away from the viewer with astrong, unsmiling mien. The lack of eye contact reinforces the impression of a tough, no-nonsense woman making her way in a man's world. There's nothing seductive or "feminine" about her. This woman is fully self-contained, breaking the rules without a hint of apology.

It would make a nice 21st century yarn to claim that Johnston's bohemian self-portrait is the self that prevailed, that this talented woman transcended her Vic­torian roots and became a liberated "new woman." But to do so would be an exam­ple of biography pressed in the service of reductionism or ideological yearning. In fact, Johnston vacillated between these poles for much of her long and accom­plished life, and Bettina Berch, in The Woman behind the Lens, properly resists the temptation to find Johnston's "true self" in one image or the other. Johnston was a champion of women's photography.
But Johnston also had her more con­ventional sides: her relations with the rich and powerful in turn of the century Washington, her deeply traditional atti­tudes about photography, her financial dealings and her taking to a brand of Southern conservatism as she grew older. Unlike many early woman photographers — Lady Hawarden, Julia Margaret Cam­eron and her contemporary Sarah Sears— for Johnston, photography was more than an avocation; it was a meal ticket. She came into the medium just as photo­mechanical reproduction became feasi­ble, and she was among the first to grasp the possibilities. Beginning in the late i88os, Johnston produced illustrated arti­cles on such diverse topics as how money is minted, salt mines, how to use chopsticks and a shoe factory. In the process, she pioneered the fledging arena of photo­journalism while demonstrating that a woman could hold her own. At the same time, she developed extensive Washing­ton D.C. connections which led to for­mal portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and his daughter Alice, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, the wives of Taft and McKinley and many other political and social notables. She established herself as the portraitist of choice in turn-of-the-century Washing­ton, its unofficial court photographer.

But Johnston was equally at home with people at the other end of the spectrum. In 1899 she undertook a remarkable documentary project in the Washington public schools, where she Frances Benjamin Johnston, Alice Roosevelt, 1902 made over 700 images during a six-week period. Some of these photographs were later published in a series called The New Education Illustrated, accompanied with texts on facing pages that described the then-innovative classroom approaches documented in the photographs. Unfor­tunately, this is little-known work: only three pictures are reproduced in The Woman behind the Lens, and Berch's com­mentary on the project is perfunctory.
The images are sophisticated solutions to the challenges of photographing jittery children at slow shutter speeds in con-
While some of the images are unavoid­ably stiff, and others are inadvertently comic (the children are always clean beyond belief and invariably enraptured with whatever the teacher is saying), they are afso highly revealing about how edu­cation was practiced and theorized at the turn of the century. There were no prece­dents for this sort of project, so Johnston made up the rules as she went along, much as she did in her earlier photo­journalism work.
Whereas contemporary photogra­phers can gain access with relative ease under the aegis of Magnum or CNN, in Johnston's case the force of her personal­ity and hard-earned connections opened otherwise closed doors. Johnston had the ability to gain the trust and cooperation of a wide range of people, from presi­dents and literary lions to miners and young students. Like all accomplished photographers, she responded to each photographic situation with fresh eyes. Few before her had aimed her camera at such a broad range of subjects. In her photographic versatility and her evident visual intelligence, Johnston compares favor-ably to John Thomson, who sever­al decades earlier made extraordinarily sophisticated images of diverse people and places in Asia.

Johnston's few remaining personal papers are seldom revealing about her motives, thoughts, emotions or her inner life in general. She lived alone for all but a few years and never married. Despite scant evidence, Berch makes a convincing case of Benjamin's major love interest being Mattie Hewitt, who developed a long-distance friendship with Johnston and later left her husband in order to open a photographic studio with John­ston in Greenwich Village. Berch carefully sifts through the materials on this topic and wisely lets a few letters from Hewitt to Johnston speak for themselves. Berch suggests that this may have been the only sexual relationship (if indeed it were) Johnston ever had. But Johnston was a fiercely independent woman, and she never gave any indication that she resented or resisted the single life that she led well into her ninth decade.

Johnston must have been a force of nature. She was feisty, self-sufficient, entrepreneurial, highly social and able to befriend people from many walks of life. She often flirted with financial dis­aster and yet always managed to keep herself afloat through commissions. She graphically active well into her 8os and explored a broad range of photographic genres during her long career.
Berch's biography fails to capture the force of Johnston's personality, in part because of the shortage of revealing per­sonal papers. Berch's writing, which is too often a perfunctory and flat, doesn't help either. This biography falls short in other respects as well. Berch sometimes struggles to sustain a persuasive argu­ment (for example, her critique of the Museum of Modern Art's 1966 exhibition of Johnston's Hampton Institute photo­graphs). Her discussions of Johnston's photographs are brisk and for the most part unrevealing. While evaluating John­ston's photographs, Berch claims that her "historic-preservation work is generally considered her most enduring photo­graphic contribution," which would be news to virtually any photographic historian or curator. And what are we to make of statements like: [Johnston] never grumbled aloud about Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange or any other patho-photographers, but it is clear she had no use for them.
I assume the unfortunate "patho-photographer" coinage is Berch's because Johnston never "grumbled aloud" on such matters. Berch suggests elsewhere that Johnston may have moved from portraits to photographs of gardens because of "a shift in midlife, as Johnston turned 54 in 1918." These sorts of bald judgments call into question the general reliability of a biographer.

While this is not a compelling bio­graphy, The Woman behind the Lens does assemble a good deal of useful informa­tion about Johnston's life and career. Johnston was neither a proper Victorian nor a feminist bohemian. Rather, hers was a restless spirit that incorporated many selves, and made many different kinds of photographs, during her 86 years. Berch maintains a balanced per­spective on Johnston's complexities while sensibly avoiding a reductive approach. Near the conclusion she suggests, rightly I think, that:

"No one label — be it new woman, progressive or colonial revivalist — can possibly cover or explain all Johnston's complexities. Here was a Jim Crow-era young white woman who traveled the South on her own, to show the world how great the new black colleges really were. Here was a convent-educated daughter of a bourgeois household who decided to live with her woman partner on the fringes of Greenwich Village. Here was an old lady in her eighties who loved calling herself an "octo-geranium" and kept planning more and more work for herself."

* * *

A few months after completing the Washington Schools project, Johnston was hired by the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia to make an extensive photographic record of the school. Hampton was formed after the Civil War by Samuel Chapman Arm­strong, the son of missionary parents, graduate of Williams College, and a dedicated Abolitionist. In a letter written near the conclusion of the Civil War, Armstrong voiced the principles upon which Hampton was founded:

"My thought and sympathies are now chiefly with the large masses of colored people in this country who need to be educated and elevated; and who especial­ly need earnest and active friends to see that they receive justice, to counsel and direct them, to gather up the rising gen­eration in schools, and to encourage the colored population to industry."

Although Hampton offered tradi­tional liberal arts courses, its curriculum emphasized practical and applied arts. In today's parlance, it was a vocational school, and its mission was to produce functional adults who could find gain­ful employment in trade, teaching, and service occupations. Most of Hampton's approximately 1000 students were black, but there were also 135 Native American students.
Johnston was in residence at Hamp­ton for approximately six weeks, during which time she produced 159 large glass plates. As in the Washington Schools project, she chose to photograph groups of students who were in the process of learning or perfecting a particular skill. In one picture, a dozen or so young men stand over drafting tables learning mechanical drawing, while in another women armed with yardsticks stand and kneel in front of a building. Men make shoes, women make dresses and both sexes ponder the art of making cheese. Even in the more academically-oriented pictures, Johnston tries to impart a spirit of active learning. In a geography class, each student cradles a miniature globe while another student points to a chart on the blackboard. In another, a student stands before the rest of the class reading a poem while his classmates listen raptly as they consider a picture of Whittier. Many of Johnston's Hampton pictures underscore the socialization of their subjects into the American mainstream. In one picture, several dozen carefully positioned black children at a nearby elementary school salute the flag, which is held by a rather forlorn looking black boy standing apart from the rest. A group of Indians in formal military dress pose with violins, trumpets and other Western instruments, while 20 or so black men pose with a football. Portraits of Wash­ington and others are prominently dis­played in the classrooms. In all of the photographs, the students are immac­ulately dressed, serious and attentive. These are model students in model learn­ing situations, young men and women who are learning with a vengeance.

One hundred years after Johnston photographed at Hampton, Williams College asked Carried Mae Weems "to revisit the Johnston photographs and life at Hampton University." Weems, a black artist who is among the most influential photographers of her generation, was granted access to the historical archives at Hampton, which includes not only Benjamin's pictures but thousands of others including many of Native Ameri­cans. The result is a traveling exhibition by Weems and an unusually handsome book published by Aperture, Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project, which serves both as a document of Weems' Hampton installations and a mini-retrospective of her career.

The cover of the Aperture book effectively sets the tone for the book's contents. A translucent, scrim-like dust jacket bears the simple words, Carrie Mae Weems/The Hampton Project, with sepia portraits embossed on the book's boards seeping through. The dust jacket creates an enticing barrier to the pictures, and one looks under the jacket only to dis­cover that the images themselves are layered over other images. On the back of the book jacket a Weems text, with dusky images beneath, proclaims:
Here and there you peek
out from behind history's veil
Before the past and before the future
and glimmers of your brilliance
and after the opening of the sea
can be seen in the contours
Before the first contact...

Throughout the book, Weems' texts are interwoven in a similar fashion, with the before/after theme serving as a leit­motif.In conjunction with the images, the texts create a complex dialogue that verges on the dialectical. Weems frus­trates our desire to see and know and in the process introduces us to deeper levels of seeing and knowing. More remarkably, the work is at once highly polemical and deeply ambiguous, two qualities that seldom coexist. In a word, this is ambitious and challenging work.

Where Johnston gave us immaculately lighted, controlled, razor-sharp images of Hampton, Weems' vision combines ironic conflation with hazy ambiguity. As in her other recent installations, Weems digi­tizes images onto huge sheets of fabric that impart a feeling of fragility and ephemerality. This book tries to repro­duce the experience of seeing the work in the galleries, so the illustrations combine several installation shots of the exhibition with single images photo­graphed directly from the cloth prints. Similarly, the book's texts replicate the audio that is played in the exhibition.
Weems appropriates some of Benja­min's Hampton images, along with many others, to deconstruct some of their as­sumptions. In the process, Weems reads herself into the discourse by introducing a self-portrait in one of the crucial images, a picture of a buffalo falling off a cliff. As Weems says in the interview included in the book, "I often include myself in my work, it has to do with wanting to inscribe my presence in the things that I consider important. I also insert myself as the narrator of history. Women are the weepers of history, we are the symbolic representations of compassion and decency. I find this representation useful and I use it as a vehicle in my work."
Weems combines passion and polemics with a tolerance for subtlety and nuance that is unusual in politically inspired work. Hers is a strong vision, but she also possesses the ability to mix the desire for resolution with a tolerance for ongoing process and unfolding history.
A century of history and a world of ideological difference separate these two photographers. Weems is free to act upon her instincts in a way that Johnston, for all of her grit, would have found utterly foreign. Benjamin worked in part to please the people who commissioned the Hampton work; Weems' commission, on the other hand, allowed her to wander in the archives as she pleased. Both bod­ies of work are highly rhetorical, though their messages couldn't be more differ­ent. Benjamin's images attest to the noble intentions of an educational model (how­ever misguided and patronizing they may seem now), and her images suggest that such a model was both wise and effective. Weems, on the other hand, uses images and text to deconstruct the assumptions embedded in Johnston's images, the premises that underlied the Hampton model, racism in the 19TH century, and an educational system which, to her mind, stripped Blacks and Native Americans of their native cultures. She clearly states the premises of her work in the interview:

Suffice it to say that the new republic demanded conformity, consistency of opinion, manner, and mores. Democracy does not tolerate dissent and/or differ­ence; by its very nature it demands con­formity; a republic of like-minded men and women is essential to the democratic process. Those who refused to submit were driven to the stony wall, the edge of time, the buffalo jump, thus the separate fate of blacks and Indians.
Weems strives to bring these points home in no uncertain terms, much as Benjamin's highly posed images effec­tively served an utterly different agenda.

* * *

The vast majority of major photog­raphy books in recent years have been published to accompany exhibitions. Typically, such publications include texts which validate, if not valorize the muse­um's decision to exhibit and publish the work. The curators usually write essays, and other writers are hired to illuminate and applaud the work or life of the artist in question. Such publications are unde­niably useful in getting the work out to the public. They also, with precious few exceptions, are essentially feel-good enterprises, and, not coincidentally, moneymakers.

It is noteworthy that Williams College and Aperture have included in Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project levels of critique and even deconstruction that are very rare in today's publishing world. Vivian Patterson, the curator of the Weems exhibition, suggests that:

"One must acknowledge that John­ston's documentary Hampton work, hauntingly clear as it seems to be, is propagandist by intent and, more impor­tantly, imbued with the polemics of her culture; similarly, we must accept Weems' own Hampton project as informed by her background and personal manifesto."
Linda Shearer, the Director of the Williams College Museum of Art, intro­duces a cautionary note in an otherwise laudatory introduction:

"An artist's interpretation of historical material, or any material for that matter, should be presented openly and without apology, but we all know that one per­son's freedom can be another's tyranny, and that we all see the world differently.Moreover, there is always risk involved in commissioning a new work by an artist."

But the most remarkable inclusion in this book is the essay by Jeanne Zeidler, the Director of the Hampton University Gallery, who explains why her museum decided not to host the exhibition. After rehearsing the history of the project and ways that the Hampton Museum and Weems had worked together, Zeidler dis­cusses the difficulties that she and her institution found in Weems' work. She argues that one of Weems' main themes — education is conformity —simplifies the role of education and the liberating impact that it can sometimes have. Zei­dler further suggests that Weems depicts the educational experience at Hampton in overly generalized and polemical terms. In the process, Zeidler gives voice to the flip side of appropriation:

"Several members of the [class of 1934] and their families still live in the Hampton community. Most of them have devoted their lives to education.
They deserve more than to see them­selves, their classmates, or their family members included anonymously in an exhibition that to our mind simplifies education and the struggle to attain it as conformity."
Weems, for her part, explains in the interview that:
"I knew that a critical approach would make the museum administration some­what uncomfortable, but I also felt that a poetic and critical probing of the more complex issues surrounding Hampton's history would be essential to the project. Nothing moves forward without sincerely looking at the multiple levels of reality, and unbridled reality is often painful, if you know what I mean. But one learns from looking, from seeing, and by not hiding from the revealing aspects of the truth."

In addition to the tensions already noted in Weems' work, the book itself becomes a dialectic in its own right. Such issues often surface in the arts: the writer who lampoons friends and lovers, the artist who populates his nightmares with those close to him, the playwright who places his dysfunctional family onto the stage and under bright lights. Artistic license can have infractionary implica­tions. Few of us, after all, enjoy being the grist for someone else's mill.

Zeidler insists upon responsible his­toricity, for acknowledging the humanity of the individuals who came before us. Weems, while not disclaiming this position, is more interested in discover­ing underlying patterns that transcend individuality, even as they shape the lives of particular individuals. It is common, of course, for different people to find wholly different realities in the same historical episode. What looks like benign acculturation to one person can look like cultural imperialism to another. The young men and women who populate Johnston's photographs are undeniably being acculturated into the American ethos, and this process, overtly or subtly, may be stripping them of their native heritage. The same educational paradox occurred in turn-of-the-century immi­grant homes and classrooms, where the children of first generation immigrants were given the promise of upward mobil­ity if they learned the American code. It was not unusual for immigrant parents to insist that only English be spoken in the home, even if they themselves could barely speak it. For that matter, the same process unfolds in our own time in the ethnically diverse classrooms of Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, and with similar double-edged consequences. Presumably, many parents of Hampton's students, along with the students them­selves, were aware of the processes at work.Hampton's decision clearly was painful both to the institution and to Weems. Ironically, Zeidler's critique is consistent with the deconstructionist spirit that animates Weems work, even though the two women obviously come to radically different conclusions. In true dialectical fashion, each position in some ways validates the other, and each posi­tion in other ways cancels the other out.
The fact that this book presents these issues so forthrightly is a testament to the power of Weems' vision and the courageof those who supported this exhibition and publication. Tensions between artists, curators and directors are often present during the creation and mount­ing of museum exhibitions, but such subtexts are nearly always suppressed. Rather, the public (and museum donors) are served up large dollops of bonhomie in honor of the infallible presence of a genius at work. This publication, thankfully, transcends the blarney factor that is rampant in so many art and photography books.
* * *

Like Weems, it is impossible for us to see Frances Benjamin Johnston's pictures of Hampton without the benefit of the • last century's history. When looking at Johnston's picture of Blacks kneeling around a football, for example, we can't forget the fact that it took more than a half century before blacks could play football in many integrated universities or the NFL. As we view these images with the benefit of hindsight, some of the naive assumptions implicit in John­ston's images become clear. Johnston's Hampton photographs, taken as a whole, suggest that color will not be a barrier to these students if only they learn the right skills, don the right clothes and have the right attitude. The ioth century has proven otherwise.
However, we must remember that many of Johnston's contemporaries, including Hampton's own students, saw these same pictures as positive and truth­ful. The Hampton photographs, after all, enjoyed great success at the 1900 Paris Exposition, and Johnston subsequently received major commissions to photo­graph in a similar vein at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute and the Indian School at Carlisle.

How do we balance the claims of our ways of knowing against the beliefs and sensibilities of the people who were there? Or put the question a different way: imagine that an artist, in 2100, has received a commission to revisit John­ston's and Weems' work on Hampton. This woman would have survived, or endured or rejoiced in — who can guess? — the ust century's track record on race and education. What would such a photographer see in Johnston's stiff and ordered images that elude Weems and ourselves? And, armed with the hindsight that we bring to Johnston's pictures, what new depths or limitations might she discover in Weems' sad and beautiful images?