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Early Twentieth Century Garden Photographer

Garden photography can easily become a treasure of garden design history.

It is not just an image of a few flowers, but a photo can enlighten a viewer in what is important in designing beds and other areas in the home landscape.

That is the message of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) in her early twentieth century work in gardens and photography.

She pioneered the use of magic lantern slides in lectures dealing with the landsape.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens (online as well) has a collection of lantern slides. Johnston’s collection is at the Library of Congress.

Sam Waters traces FBJ’s journey in his colorful book Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images.

Johnston became a speaker much in demand, helped largely by her extensive slide collection.

The format of a lecture with slides was just at its beginning stages at the turn of the twentieth century.

Her focus was always on garden design, and the slides helped immensely.

She was teaching her audience the principles of garden design.

The Process

The magic slide included two layers of glass.

It began with a photo of the garden. Then someone, or several people if needed, would paint the colors of the photo to bring out the beauty of the flowers, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and lawn.

The slide would also include in the garden design walkways, fountains, and vases filled with flowers.

Think of the old-fashioned slide show with Kodak trays of slides to guide the speaker with some direction in his/her comments. The magic lantern is basically an early example of that same process.

When FBJ began her lecture tour, landscape architects were just entering the arena of garden design as an art form and their work as a a profession. The slides helped immensely, especially because the gardens were usually from a household or site that had a lot of money to spend on design and materials.

Waters writes, “Johnson used the medium of lantern slide presentation and its dynamic potential to tell stories and teach design principles.”

He mentions too the importance of the garden club.

Waters writes, “By the late 1920s, Johnston and her colleagues were influencing garden design as the Garden Club of America had anticipated.”

Blue Garden

In 1917 Arthur Curtis James and his wife Harriet Parsons James decided they would hire the Olmsted firm to design and install a Blue Garden in their Newport, Rhode Island seaside property.

The flowers and many stone and. wooden features displayed a blue color.

FBJ took a photo of the garden which became a slide she later used in her garden lectures. [below]

Hand-colored glass lantern slides by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1917. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, Frances Benjamin Johnston collection.

In the photo perennials provided an expansive array of blue, blue-purple, and white flowers, while leaves of all shades of green through gray offered texture – some vertical and strappy, others feathery and shiny

In 2019 a neighbor bought the property and restored the long-neglected garden with the help of the material including drawings from the Olmsted firm.

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