Not So Secret Garden

One of the things I love most about going home to southern Mississippi is going home to my mom’s garden. The sights and smells are always like a big, warm hug. The jasmine she’s got growing on a trellis is a focal piece. The calla lilies lining one side of the yard are some of her prized flowers. Louie the bougainvillea (my mom likes to name her plants, this one after its namesake Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville) brings a traditional southern flair to her yard. And let’s not forget all her “accents” – her statuary of St. Michael and St. Francis, the bricked patio that she and my dad hand-laid themselves and, last but not least, her collection of rocks she “rescued” from her and dad’s many travels. All of these things come together to create a warm refuge that clearly shows the love put into it.

Malcolm Matheson house, Fox Hunt Road, Alexandria, Va. Lantern slide by Frances B. Johnston, 1927 / Prints and Photographs Division

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. Johnston last projected them during lectures in the 1910s to 1930s to rally Americans to grow gardens in an effort to beautify a landscape left neglected and deteriorated from industrial pollution during the Gilded Age. And they have not been seen since, until now.

The absence of garden names, locations and dates had kept these lantern slides from general public access, until historian Sam Watters took it upon himself to catalog the garden collection. After five years of research in libraries and archives, he has transformed vague earlier notations into detailed data.

Through these efforts a book was born. “Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston,” published by Acanthus Press in collaboration with the Library of Congress, features 250 full-color images and 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 Library is the repository of Johnston’s personal papers and some 20,000 of her photographs. She has long been acknowledged as an important photographer for her many contributions to early photojournalism and documentation of historic architecture.  These photographs help bring her role in the Garden Beautiful movement as an advocate and artist working with garden clubs, horticultural societies and museums front and center.

Make sure to check out this blog post from the Prints and Photographs Division, which also talks about Johnston and points to related resources for further research.

4 Comments

  1. Nina Hollowell
    April 13, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I live and work in Newark, New Jersey, a city of wonderful people and yet it suffers from the same problems Ms. Johnston was trying to prevent. I believe this is largely due to it’s tainted history from the riots of the 60’s which were prompted largely by poverty and lack of opportunity, social blights that linger to this day. It would be wonderful to see our civic leaders and the public they serve take more responsibility in promoting the aesthetic beauty that gardens and trees provide. Beauty requires commitment from the tax-paying public, too, to maintain projects attempted. it’s poignant to see that one individual worked so hard to “rally Americans to grow gardens in an effort to beautify a landscape left neglected and deteriorated from industrial pollution”, the very problem we suffer from today. Perhaps we can emulate some of her sightings.

  2. annette goltermann
    April 13, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Is this book available for sale? This would be a wonderful addition to the legacy of my grandfather. He was respected for his dedication to the gardens of Marin County, CA that he tended for wealthy homeowners who also owned some of the homes in SF that were lost in the 1906 earthquake. The homeowners loved him so much that after the quake, he was given some of their treasured artifacts to keep as a reward for his help. Traveling by ferry, he brought the prized goods to his humble home in Mill Valley where they remain….. in the home he built from some of the salvaged lumber . His home is still owned by his family. His gardens around the area still bring pleasure to those who are lucky enough to view them. His own personal gardens are open for public viewing along the corner of Gardner and Blithedale near the old City Hall and Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club. Perhaps one of the gardens that he tended would be among the photos! Thank you.
    Sincerely, A Garatti

  3. jose enrique
    April 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Very nice and interesting.
    Thank you and greetings from Spain.

  4. Erin Allen
    April 20, 2012 at 7:36 am

    The book is available for sale in bookstores nationwide and at the Library Shop.

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