The Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston
“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”
By Maria Popova
Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston (January 15, 1864–May 16, 1952) received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.
And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.
Mein Liebling —
… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.
When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.
Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.
… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.
Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.
I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…
… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .
I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?
In another letter, Hewitt wrote:
…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .
And in another:
I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .
In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.
Published November 15, 2013