Faces of Rural America
Belle Johnson Collection
Were it not for her correspondence with friend and fellow photographer, William Loren Bennett, Massillon Museum staff may never have become familiar with Belle Johnson. Bennett was a native of Navarre, a town adjacent to Massillon which is similarly located along the Ohio and Erie Canal. The waterway inspired Bennett to photograph its numerous locks and scenic locations, many examples of which also reside in the collection of the Massillon Museum. Though how the two came to know one another is uncertain, it seems likely that they became acquainted at a photographic salon or convention. As an extension of the pride Johnson took in her work—or perhaps her signs of affection—she sent over 200 photographs to Bennett, starting in 1901. Bennett donated his photographic collection to the Museum in 1946; the donation included the Belle Johnson’s photographs.
The collection of images held by the Massillon Museum presents only a vague sense of who Johnson was as a photographer; they encapsulate a roughly fifteen-year period of her artistic and award-winning ventures. Before embarking upon the Faces of Rural America project—which opened a dialogue between the Massillon Museum staff and residents of Monroe City—we had never imagined how extensively Belle Johnson’s photographic career spanned time and subject matter. The Museum’s knowledge of her work was limited to that which was more narrative and pictorial in nature: genre images of women reading and tatting, a forlorn-looking tramp on interlude between his railroad adventures, floral still lifes, farm scenes, and idyllic portraits of children. We learned from visiting Monroe City and meeting its residents that her body of work included everything from wedding and yearbook photos to portraits of servicemen. Read Biography