The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.
When house and garden historian Sam Watters first learned about Frances B. Johnston’s color garden photos from the early 1900s, he e-mailed us right away. An appointment was soon arranged to show him these fascinating but uncataloged “magic lantern slides.” We all felt like we were walking into a large gold mine without a map.
Johnston, a talented photographer and an advocate for beautifying America, had selected 1,100 of her landscape photographs for reproduction as hand-colored lantern slides (small glass transparencies, typically 3.25 x 4 inches). Projecting these remarkable images while she spoke extemporaneously made her lectures at garden clubs and other venues popular from 1915 on.
The catch? Most of the slides lacked identifying information. Until now. Watters spent five years digging for information in libraries and archives throughout the country, poring through illustrated garden magazines of the day, and reading all of Johnston’s extensive personal papers. By piecing together the scattered clues, he charted a course that revealed the gold.
The result? A “sumptuous and scholarly” new book provides an invaluable guide to the collection. 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. In-depth essays describe the importance of Johnston’s work with gardens and also explain the techniques she used to compose lantern slides that resemble miniature paintings. The detailed source notes about individual gardens and explanatory footnotes can help anyone pursue similar research with other collections.
Watters will discuss and sign his book for a Books & Beyond event on Friday, April 13, at noon, in the Library’s West Dining Room. The program is free and open to the public.
Thank you, Sam, for breathing life back into these rare garden images. Your expert knowledge and dedication have ensured open public access for this gardening gold mine!
The whole collection is now available online, too, for everyone to enjoy through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Watters not only wrote a book, he provided detailed captions for all the original images, giving them a garden name, location, date, and site history.
- Gardens for a Beautiful America by Sam Watters, with preface by C. Ford Peatross (New York: Acanthus Press, published in collaboration with the Library of Congress, 2012)
- Acquaint yourself with Frances Benjamin Johnston’s amazing life in the Biographical Overview and Chronology
- Explore the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South collection–the source for most images in the lantern slide lecture Johnston called “Tales Old Houses Tell”
- Get a sense of the varied scope of the Johnston Collection–with more than 2,500 photos digitized from throughout her career
- Discover the technology behind Lantern Slides in an illustrated booklet on how to make them, written by John Tennant in 1899 for The Photo-miniature: A Monthly Magazine of Photographic Information. Vol. 1, no. 9, December 1899. (Call number: TR505 .L357 1899 P&P Case X)