Carl Truman Johnston was born November 25, 1902 to Florence Horne and Ralph Waldo Johnston, the oldest of four siblings: Roy, Mary and June. Carl married Mary Louise Anderson and had three children: Ralph Truman, Carl Baker, and Mary Anne. His wife, Mary Louise, died unexpectedly in June 1942. He then married Lillian Anderson Card the following year but the marriage soon ended in divorce. A few years later Marion Stewart Rodgers became his third wife and survived him upon his death on July 2, 1951. Marshall Rodgers, Johnston's third wife’s son, became his assistant for a few years prior to his death.
Carl’s father, R.W., made a career of photography begining in the 1890s and gaining increasing recognition in Pittsburgh. He owned Trinity Court Studio in downtown Pittsburgh and, in season, also maintained a studio in Chautauqua, NY. As a youth, Carl became increasingly interested in a photographic career apprenticing with his father and working as assistant on many of his shoots. He started in Erie, Pa., as a photographer in the early 1920s before moving back to Pittsburgh where he collaborated with his father on several projects. However, they both had strong personalities and preferred to work independently. In the early 1930s Carl formed Johnston and Johnston, Inc. with his mother as partner. The original office was located in the Grogan Building but later moved to an older mansion at 1203 Western Avenue. It was featured in Marcia Davenport’s book,
The Valley of Decision.
Carl specialized as a commercial photographer taking photos of various industrial processes, buildings and events, such as the 1936 Saint Patrick's Day flood. He provided advertising photos for a variety of companies in Pittsburgh including Islay’s. At the end of the Second World War, he was commissioned to take photos of Pittsburgh's bridges. The completion of this commission posed a real challenge and he was required to create new techniques to process and print these very large murals. His technique involved cutting through the floor of an upstairs room of an old mansion building to produce the photographs. The photographs were then mounted as huge murals on the walls of the William Penn Hotel's Pittsburgh Room in downtown Pittsburgh. Johnston continued to use this process to create murals including one of The Point. His use of lighting was considered exceptional and notable. He even went so far as to have his assistant crawl into a cement mixer so that it could be more properly photographed.
Gradually Carl’s interest and energies were directed beyond just creating photoragraphs for advertising. His work evolved to take advantage of the trend of incorporating storytelling in advertising through the use of text and imagery. Subjects covered by Johnston were varied covering everything from coal mining, to steel making, producing Pepperidge Farm Bread, and operating assembly lines, among others. Traveling to investigate and understand these various subjects, he would study the process, take the pictures and then write text and assemble a brochure. An example of this work can be seen in his commission from Gulf Oil Company where he needed to show how various manufacturing processes used their products. The resulting stories were published in pamphlets that were distributed by the company.