MONROE CITY, Mo. | Emma Jo Mudd, 97, wasn't surprised to learn that the late Belle Johnson, the woman considered by many to be Monroe City's most famous resident, was going to be featured in a soon-to-be published anthology chronicling the lives of female photographers. More specifically, the photo considered to be Johnson's most iconic, “Three Women With Long Hair,” is going to be on the book's cover.
“She really was top notch. I really think she was known from coast to coast as one of the best photographers in America,” said Mudd, who worked as a young woman in the first floor of a two-story building that houses both Walker Jewelry Store and Johnson's photography studio.
Also not surprised by this announcement of the pending publication is museum archivist Mandy Altimus Stahl, who works at the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio. Upon her death, Johnson bequeathed some of her collection of photographs and negatives to a William Bennett, a similarly acclaimed photographer whom Johnson considered a friend and confidant. In turn, Bennett donated his personal collection of both of their works to the museum upon his death.
The collection of Johnson's photographs at Massillon Museum are always widely popular when on display.
“Belle Johnson took gorgeous photographs that show the faces of rural America and her hometown of Monroe City in a way that very few people were able to capture,” Altimus Stahl said. “I am always impressed when I think about how Belle Johnson would have been shooting these pictures using glass plates and how very careful she had to be with lighting, with positioning the subject just so. She really was an exceptional photographer.”
Johnson was born in 1864 in Mendota, Ill., which is approximately 85 miles west of Chicago, and at the time of her birth was a small city of roughly 1,900 people. She was the daughter of George and Hannah Young Corey. Johnson came to Monroe City after graduating from St. Mary's College, a liberal arts college in South Bend, Ind., where she excelled in astronomy, logic and English composition, according to the biography written for Johnson when she was inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame in 2008. She was just the third woman inducted into the hall of fame.
In an October 1903 interview with the writers of Western Camera Notes, a now defunct monthly magazine detailing the growing photography industry, Johnson says she came to Monroe City to visit a sister, Mary Walker. During that visit she answered a newspaper advertisement for a position in Rippey's Photography Studio. She decided to apply for the position because “teaching was not being to her liking.”
Johnson's application was initially rejected, but she was later hired with the understanding that she was to buy the studio from the current owner. In exchange for buying the studio, he would stay on for at least six months. Instead, Altimus Stahl said he stayed only a matter of weeks.
“What makes Belle Johnson's success even more compelling was that she was primarily self-taught,” said Altimus Stahl. Or as Johnson put it in an interview prior to her passing, “There is no royal road to success. A love for the work is a help. Hard work and study will do the rest.”
Either way, Altimus Stahl said Johnson earned the right to be called a trailblazer.
“Belle Johnson absolutely was a trailblazer. She was running her own business and was a female photographer at a time when very few women ever had the opportunity to work outside the home. Belle Johnson definitely made it easier and more accepting for other women to follow her,” Altimus Stahl.
By 1894, Johnson was entering photographs to state and national contests. At the state contest she finished in third place overall, finishing less than one-third of 1 percentage point behind the first-place winner. Those awards would be just one of many that Johnson won during her career, which also included supplying photographs for advertisements in nationwide magazines.
In the Western Camera Notes magazine, Johnson notes that by “securing of rural scenes, homely occupations, character studies and the like is well within the easy reach of the photographer in the smaller towns. Such pictures are, if well done, eagerly sought for by the advertisers in magazines.”
Johnson, a charter member of the Professional Photographers Association, had received 13 medals in international competitions by 1907 and frequently had her work published in the Monroe City News. Mudd vividly remembers how the woman she called “Miss Belle” never boasted about her awards and accolades.
“She wouldn't hang any of her awards up in her studio. Her sister would try and sneak one or two up on the wall to let people know, but she would take the awards down and just say it was just foolishness,” said Mudd who would often be a model for Johnson as she tested lighting and angles for upcoming appointments.
“She would have a sitting that day and would call to the jewelry store and tell me to come up. She was very abrupt, never said too many words, very particular about how the lighting was supposed to be or how she wanted the chairs to be placed,” Mudd said. Others who have known Johnson have described her as “eccentric, independent and unorthodox.”
Altimus Stahl said the time spent preparing the scene allowed Johnson to record images that today are some of her most beloved work. “She would catch people off-guard, she would capture these breathtaking moments when people weren't expecting her to take their picture,” Altimus Stahl said. “There is something, almost a bit emotional, seeing the vulnerability of seeing someone who is unaware or not expecting their picture to be taken.”
Altimus Stahl contends that is why “The Three Women With Long Hair” photo has continued to be one of her most sought after images.
“What attracts people to the photo is the hair,” Altimus Stahl said. “Yes, the hair is long and is in a different style than today's hair style, but it's the vulnerability of seeing these women in a way that very few people, with the exception being their husbands and children, who would have ever seen these women with their hair down.”
Today, historians say there are fewer than 500 known copies of Johnson's work in the world, which is considered to be a substantial amount by Altimus Stahl and Mudd, but both women believe there are more photos out there that have survived. Some of her last published works were photographs of local soldiers preparing to depart to fight in World War II in the early 1940s, but following her death in 1945 her studio and its contents were separated and scattered.
“My past experience tells me that there are still more photos out there, but they have been just tucked away in someone's attic or in a photo scrapbook and forgotten about from one generation to the next,” Altimus Stahl said. For Monroe City residents like Emma Jo Mudd, there is no forgetting about Belle Johnson.
“I really think she took pictures of everybody in town, she took my wedding photo, my parents' wedding photo, she took so many photos and I think we all treasure them greatly,” Mudd said.
More information about Mary Margaret McBride is available at the Monroe County Historical Society and Nancy E. Stone Research Center, 112 S. Main, Room 5, Paris, Mo. The research center is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.