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The golden age of gardens

New book unveils sumptuous garden photos unseen since the 1930s

Created date

May 22nd, 2012

In the early 20th century, the American landscape was undergoing a drastic change. Smokestacks sprouted up where trees once grew, tenement buildings eclipsed open spaces, and railroad tracks tore through the prairie all in the name of progress. The growing disregard for beauty troubled many and gave rise to the City Beautiful movement, a reform effort that linked green space, parks, and plants with civic virtue.

Making America beautiful again

Garden clubs, the exclusive bastion of socially elite women, launched full-scale campaigns promoting the idea that citizens could plant and plow the nation back to its former glory. In this progressive era, when people were thinking about how to improve America, women stepped in to engage themselves in a public way. They wanted the parks to be better. They wanted the cities to be better. And they wanted to do it in a ground up way, says Sam Watters, author ofGardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston(Acanthus Press). They took an activist stance, says Watters. Of course, as wealthy women they were in a position of power, but still, as women they faced a distinct struggle because they were going up against their husbands and other powerful men. They had enormous impact. They restored parks, they did roadside beautification, and they were diligent. These clubs commissioned photographs of the world s most beautiful gardens to illustrate their point of view. Sparing no expense, they hired the most sought-after garden photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston.

A remarkable woman

One of the first woman photographers, Johnston was remarkable by any measure. She received her first camera from George Eastman, inventor of the Eastman Kodak camera, and learned darkroom techniques and composition from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. She began her career in the 1890s as a portrait photographer and photojournalist in Washington, D.C., and before long, she was photographing the president, socialites, and celebrities. Midway through her career, Johnston discovered the garden and like a repotted geranium, there she thrived for the rest of her career. The most celebrated garden photographer of her time, Johnston s work is largely unknown to today s gardening enthusiasts, mainly because it hasn t been seen. She left over 1,100 slides (along with her papers) to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; however, none of her work was catalogued and most of the slides lacked identification. For nearly 70 years, Johnston s work sat untouched and unseen in storage.

A time machine to the golden age

While doing research at the Library of Congress, Watters happened upon Johnston s work by accident. Like most people who see Johnston s beautiful hand-colored lantern slides, Watters was instantly captivated. He spent the next five years organizing and cataloguing her slides. Only about 600 of the 1,100 slides had any marking on them at all, says Watters. And those markings were very abbreviated, so the first thing that had to happen was to figure out what in the world we were looking at. And that took a lot of time. Piecing together information from newspaper accounts of Johnston s famous garden lectures, her rather inconsistent notes, and his own knowledge of gardens from that time period, Watters sorted it all out. The result of all that painstaking work is Gardens for a Beautiful America, a gorgeous new book containing 250 of Johnston s lush, hand-colored images. In the book s preface, Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering at the Library of Congress, describes the work as sumptuous and scholarly, providing a time machine and a magic carpet capable of transporting us back to a lost, golden age in the development of the American garden.

A garden of her own

What made Johnston special? Watters believes it was her adaptability and her resilience. Her sense of cultural change was profound. She sustained this 60-year career by evolving through different kinds of photography, he says. When she started, the field of photography was only 50 years old, so it was still in its infancy. She was a single woman who made her own living throughout her life and she did it all in a completely new medium. It s profound. She was incredibly gutsy. In 1945, Johnston retired to her home in New Orleans, and for the first time in her 82 years, she planted a garden of her own. She lived there contentedly with her two cats Herman and Vermin. Frances Benjamin Johnston died in 1952 at the age of 88, but thanks to theGardens for a Beautiful America, her magical garden photos live on.