Reverie Fair Magazine Winter 2016 - Page 18

Pictorialism and a Jaunt Outside the Box

Pictorialism. The term is so outdated that spell check questions it. Yet, in 1885, renowned photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston was so far ahead of her time in both actions and thought processes that she could have coined today’s catchphrase, “thinking outside the box.”

That philosophy was an integral part of who Johnston was, from the time she graduated from the Notre Dame Academy in 1884 until the day she died at the age of 88. Her mother, a journalist, was a strong role model who encouraged her independence. As she grew both professionally and personally, she became a staunch feminist, both free-thinking and strong-willed, traits that served her well in a male dominated field.

She showed her sense of humor, independence and Bohemian character in a famed self-portrait, lifting her petticoats while crossing her legs in a typically male pose, leaning forward with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, a line of handsome men’s photos lined up along the mantle above her. It was intended to shock, flaunting conventions of the time and poking at the era’s taboos about women in society.

She didn’t limit this irreverent attitude to herself, but seemed to almost court controversy, perhaps with a bit of a snicker behind her glove. In one instance she took nude photographs of a young debutante. Given her immense skill and style, they undoubtedly were edgy, yet perfectly done. The girl’s father didn’t appreciate them, however, and filed suit against her.

Reverie Fair / Winter 2016 18

By Lisa Welz

"Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney)

Library of Congress - LC-USZC2-6127

"Miss Barney "- Library of Congress - LC-USZ62-63495