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Hand tinted lantern slide photo of an elaborate garden with a rectangular swimming pool at the center of the photo.
"Blue Garden," from Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1914. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Prints and Photographs Division.

Free to Use and Reuse — Gardens

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It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on our Free to Use and Reuse sets of photographs, those delightful copyright-free images that you can use any way you like for anything you like. We’ve featured dozens of these on the blog, including those covering autumn and Halloween, wedding pictures and everybody’s favorite, travel posters.

Since we’re in the middle of summer, let’s take a look at gardens.

There are various ways to define the word, but what better way to kick things off than with a hand-colored lantern slide by the most wonderful Frances Benjamin Johnston? She was a pioneer of portrait photography, architectural photography and women’s rights. Born into an educated family, she was a striver who worked to be well-connected in the upper realms of society. She photographed presidents (she took the last photograph of President William McKinley before he was assassinated), socialites, industrialists and artists. Her landscape photography is famous today, but she didn’t start until she was 50.

Blue Garden,” part of her “Beacon Hill House” series, takes us back to the summer of 1914 and the mansion of Arthur Curtiss James, whose 33-acre estate on Beacon Hill Road in Newport, Rhode Island, was quite the spread. James, largely forgotten today, was a railroad baron with an enormous fortune.

His garden was all about Gilded Age wealth and prosperity, about making America beautiful. “Garden” here is about landscaping in the highest sense of the art form, a cultivated landscape for a particular effect. It was part of a movement to beautify the nation, to turn the riches of the industrial age into refined, classic beauty. Johnston’s composition of the manicured landscape — the tranquil pool, the delicate purple of the flowers, the urns, statuary and columns — matches its expensive elegance.

This photo is something of a Library darling, as it was the focus of the “Every Photo is a Story” video series about how to read, or interpret, photographs. The image was also an important find by Sam Watters, an architecture and landscape historian, in his work into Johnston’s career, as more than 1,100 of her images at the Library were uncatalogued for decades. Most had little or no identification. Watters selected 250 for his book, “Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935: Photos by Frances Benjamin Johnston.” was co-published with the Library in 2012. The pictures had not been seen publicly since the 1940s.

As Watters noted in a 2013 lecture, Johnston never quite made it into those upper social realms of the people whose lives, houses and gardens she photographed so beautifully.

“She never gets to be a member of a garden club; she is the hired help,” he said. “Photographers like Johnston were down below artists, and so were landscape architects.”

Today, her work outlives many of the names and reputations of those she photographed.

Color photo of a late-summer vegetable garden, with a forested moutain range just behind it, with a brick house to the right. A man wearing jeans and a t-shirt is in the front part of the garden, back bent, leaning over a plant and bucket.
Bob Jarrell working in his West Virginia vegetable garden. 1996. Photo: Mary Hufford. American Folklife Center.

This right here is Bob Jarrell’s vegetable garden in West Virginia. The year is 1996 and that is Jarell in the foreground. It’s one of about 1,250 photos in the Coal River Folklife Collection in the American Folklife Center.

This photograph is pretty much the opposite of “Blue Garden” — not pretentious in manner, composition or subject matter. The beauty is not in its grandeur but in its working-class simplicity. The sagging sunflowers. The soft sunlight of late summer.

It’s also a more recent window into our past. If you grew up in rural America in the second half of the 20th century, then “garden” almost certainly meant “vegetable garden,” a place your parents made you go almost every day in summer, picking things you didn’t want to eat at a time you didn’t want to do it. Also, there were bugs. These gardens were family affairs, for canning and preserving for the winter ahead.

“Garden” in this sense carried an implication of self-reliance, of independence, of a work ethic that involved sweat and dirt. There were no trendy raised and boxed beds for planting, no irrigation systems and nobody used the word “artisanal” when they put the butterbeans on the table. The pressure cooker or canner was probably the one that your grandma used; it weighed a ton didn’t look like it came out of a Williams-Sonoma catalog.

That’s an American garden, too.

The Medici Fountain in Luxembourg Gardens, as it appeared in the 1890s. Photochrom print: Detroit Publishing Company. Prints and Photographs Division.

Let’s do something completely different for our third example — Luxembourg Gardens, the delight of Paris and one of the world’s great promenades. It was built by Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV and regent on behalf of her son. She started in 1612, inspired by the Boboli Gardens of Florence, Italy, where she grew up.

The Medicis knew how to make a grand garden, a regal blend of open space, trees, flowers, walkways, grottoes, statues, art and architecture. The Boboli would become the model for royalty across the continent and Marie had a stunning example built in Paris. She started with 2,000 elm trees. Eventually, it would expand from its original 15 acres to nearly 60 acres of landscaped loveliness around the equally stunning palace that is today home to the French Senate.

One of the highlights of the garden always has been the Medici Fountain. It was originally constructed as a grotto, or artificial cave, also like ones she remembered from the Boboli. But centuries passed and the fountain fell into disrepair. A major revision in the 1860s moved the fountain about 30 yards, added the urn-lined basin in front and replaced the statuary.

Our photo from the 1890s is a photochrom by the Detroit Publishing Company, which was famous for making these sorts of early color images for postcards. You can almost feel the peace of the Parisian sunlight on this afternoon when the photographer trundled his equipment through the park to the fountain and set to work. The afternoon passed. The light glinted. Perhaps a breeze. It was a job, sure, but it’s not hard to imagine that the photographer, like visitors before and since, wanted to linger. Rarely do we find places so beautiful.

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