“I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow!” Frances Benjamin Johnston
One thing I have learned during our RV travels thus far, is that no matter what place we visit, there is a story of a fascinating person connected to it. Who would have thought that by visiting a cave in Kentucky, I would become immersed in the unlikely story of an accomplished Victorian-era photographer.
It all began when we spent two nights in Kentucky at Lake Nolin State Park near Mammoth Cave National Park. It was a nice enough campground on a pleasant enough lake. But we didn’t come for the water this time; instead, we came for the cave. Thus, we signed up for a couple tours and spent a day underground in the longest cave in the world.
While I was fascinated with the possibility of photographing inside the cave (without use of flash, which is not allowed by the way), my interest did more than produce a few photos; it also got me intrigued with an obscure history of Mammoth Cave. In the visitor center’s museum, there hangs a large placard about a woman who photographed inside the cave over a 125 years ago. As soon as I saw the large print title “A Woman, a Cave, and a Camera”, I immediately ran over and began reading about Frances Benjamin Johnston.
What I read about Johnston was intriguing enough, but upon doing some research, I became more intrigued. Outside the cave, she accomplished many great things during her long life (1864-1952). From the library of Congress, I learned that Johnston had a 60-yr photography career that began when she studied art in Paris in the 1880s. Granted, she was born into wealth which gave her the leverage to pursue her photography career. Not only that, her parents had great social standing and connected her with highly influential people including Teddy Roosevelt and several other presidents whom she photographed inside the White House. Some of her most famous studio portrait subjects included Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony. And her first camera was given to her by a close family friend and inventor of the Eastman Kodak camera, George Eastman.
She may have been born into privilege which helped launch her career, but her parents could as easily forbade her from pursuing her passion. When I read about Johnston’s work, there is no doubt in my mind that her success came entirely from her exceptional drive and motivation, tireless ability to work hard, and keen artistic vision. This woman, unleashed in a Victorian era was a remarkably creative and cutting edge photographer.
Johnston was one of the first photojournalists in the country (1890s) and wrote articles for several magazines. Her photos were regularly shown at world’s fairs and international photo exhibits. She took an interest in progressive education and documented schools created for black and Indian students throughout the states. In the 1910s, she began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography. For her research and her lectures on gardens, she traveled all over the United States and Europe. Later, she focused more on the documentation of historic buildings in the south by traveling thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South with the intention of preserving its history through her art. In addition to all that, she sold prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Johnston earned several commissions and grants that provided her the resources to do the work. According to Wikipedia, her collection of photographs given to the Library of Congress is a significant resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.
Through my research, I could not determine what got Johnston interested in photographing Mammoth Cave, so I came up with my own idea. In her time, the cave was a privately owned tourist attraction with international acclaim. It was normal for high society tourists to set up a proper picnic lunch in the cave and eat by gas light. I compare this to the current ecotourism industry in that people who were able to pay for it visited the cave for a unique adventure. I suspect Johnston went into the cave not because her wealth gave her access to it or that it supplemented her Bohemian lifestyle; no, I think she was attracted to the cave for the challenge of photographing it. Her interest was great enough that she wrote a book titled “Mammoth Cave by Flash Light”. And we are not talking LED flash, we are talking dangerous explosive flash powder. Being an unconventional woman, she used unconventional methods to light the cave, all for creative and technical experimentation.
Clearly, women’s place in society has greatly evolved since the Victorian era. But even today, women still lag behind in leadership positions. For this reason and despite being from a century past, Johnston serves as an excellent role model for contemporary girls and young women. Not only that, it is these unconventional, crazy-motivated women like Johnston who help pave the way for so many women to pursue their passion. And it is so critical to women’s progress that these stories be told in public.
Indeed, in 1893, Johnston told a reporter, “It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work.” It’s doubtful that all visitors to Mammoth Cave will grasp all this, but maybe a young girl loving her camera just might.