April 13, 2012 (REVISED May 1, 2012) New Online Collection and Book Features Rare Garden Images

Slides Taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston from 1895 to 1935

Press Contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639
Public Contact: Helena Zinkham (202) 707-2922

The Library of Congress today is releasing online the digital images of a rare collection of more than 1,000 hand-colored, glass-plate lantern slides of American gardens taken a century ago by one of the first professional female photographers to achieve international prominence, Frances Benjamin Johnston.

A selection of 250 color images can be seen in a new book by house and garden historian Sam Watters titled “Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.” The book, in its preface, is described 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.”

The Library is unveiling the online images as a complement to the book, which was published this month by Acanthus Press in association with the Library.

The entire collection, 1,130 digital images, can be found in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) at www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fbj/. This online collection expands the book significantly by providing hundreds of additional images that reveal more fully such beautiful and vanished places as the color-themed gardens of the artists Albert and Adele Herter in East Hampton, N.Y. The collection also includes urban sites in New York City and estates from Pasadena, Calif., to Brookline, Mass. The Library also will upload the images to Flickr on Friday, April 20.

These remarkable color slides have not been seen since Johnston last projected them during lectures in the 1910s to 1930s to rally Americans to grow gardens on tenement lots, in row-house yards and in parks, which had deteriorated from industrial pollution and neglect during the Gilded Age.

The Library of Congress is the repository of Johnston’s personal papers and approximately 20,000 photographs. But the absence of garden names, locations and dates had kept the 1,130 lantern slides from general public access, until Watters took the challenge to catalog the garden collection. After five years of research in libraries and archives, he has transformed vague earlier library notations, such as “California garden,” into detailed data that enhances the cultural, historical and preservation contributions of the images. To cite just one example, an unlabeled slide was recognized as a prize winner in a 1922 design contest and is now identified as “The Janitor’s Garden, 137 E. 30th St., New York City.”

Johnston has long been acknowledged as an important photographer for her many contributions to early photojournalism and documentation of historic architecture. But her front and center role in the Garden Beautiful movement as an advocate and artist working with garden clubs, horticultural societies and museums has been neglected, until now. Johnston advocated for gardening the nation back to “America the Beautiful,” one elm, one rose and one fountain and shady terrace at a time.

“We thank Sam Watters and Acanthus Press for bringing Johnston and her times back to life so magnificently,” writes Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering at the Library of Congress, in his preface to the book.

The collaboration among Watters, Acanthus Press, and the Library of Congress has resulted in a fully accessible public archive of garden photographs with rich descriptions. The inspiring images can spark new ideas for backyard gardeners and outdoor living designers alike, while the thorough research notes in the book bring new sources to light for both landscape and photography historians as well as students of material culture and the environment.

Watters writes and lectures on American houses and gardens. Educated at Yale University, the University of Marseilles and the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, Watters is the author of books and numerous articles on subjects ranging from gardens of the White House to cactus theft in the Mohave Desert.

“Gardens for a Beautiful America,” a 400-page hardcover book presents 250 garden photographs in large full-color illustrations. The book includes informative essays that describe the importance of Johnston’s work with gardens and explain the techniques she used to compose lantern slides that resemble delicate miniature paintings. The book is available for $79 in bookstores nationwide and in the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540-4985. Credit-card orders are taken at (888) 682-3557 or shop online at www.loc.gov/shop/index.php?action=cCatalog.showItem&cid=1&scid=78&iid=4523.

The Prints and Photographs Division is responsible for acquiring, preserving, securing, processing and serving the Library's unique and vast collection of visual materials, which includes more than 15 million photographs, historical prints, posters, cartoons, fine-art prints, and architectural and engineering designs.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. The Library seeks to advance the knowledge and creativity of the American people through its collections, programs, and services. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at www.loc.gov.

Sample Photographs of Johnston Lantern Slides


PR 12-076
ISSN 0731-3527