Very little is known about his life. He was evidently born in Britain in the late 1830s, and was active in the New York City area in the late 1880s and 1890s. He died in 1899.
Collections of Johnston's work exist today at the Mystic Seaport Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, the National Museum of American History, the Hallmark Photographic Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Seattle Art Museum, and many other museums and archives across the United States.
Johnston was also an active canoeist. According to Forest and Stream magazine, he was "one of the old-time disciples of MacGregor; taking up canoeing as a boy in England when the sport was still a novelty."
He reportedly worked in partnership with C. Miller at one time, and his office was located at various times at 508 W. 158th Street as well as 494 W. 166th St., and 783 Broadway in New York City.
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