Frances Benjamin Johnston
American, 1864–1952
Untitled (Female students playing basketball,
Western High School, Washington, D.C.),
from Western High School album, c. 1899
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Life magazine declared Frances Benjamin Johnston “the closest thing to an official court photographer the United States has ever had” (April 25, 1949). But Johnston, a rarity as a practicing and famous female photographer, also distinguished herself as the photographer of those who remained largely unrepresented and invisible, notably African Americans and women. Nude women are plentiful in all genres and styles of art, and in the late 19th century they appeared often under the guise of “artistic” photography. Johnston’s photographs, however, show women as active participants in daily life. This picture from her Western High School album shows girls outfitted in athletic bloomers learning the rules of basketball, only eight years after James Naismith invented the game.