Joseph Keiley, a disciple of Alfred Stieglitz, deemed Johnston’s art compromised by her work as a commercial photographer — “retarded by . . . an onerous professional life.”
The rest of us can reassess that view on Friday when the Library of Congress puts online its
digitized collection of Johnston’s beguiling images
of gardens, more than 1,130 glass-lantern slides, two-thirds of them hand-colored and created between 1895 and 1935.
Even before Johnston tackled the slides, she had established herself as a pioneering female photographer and a celebrity with heady access to such subjects as Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, author Frances Hodgson Burnett and Adm. George Dewey.
The garden slides, obscured by this haze of fame, show mouthwatering estates of America’s wealthiest citizens but also the gardens of an aspiring middle class. In addition, the subjects include little gardens where they were most needed, in burgeoning cities such as New York, as well as in the grand villas and country houses of Europe.
2-by-4-inch glass transparencies also represent a major part of Johnston’s vast body of work and seem set to elevate a groundbreaking photographer celebrated in her day but now largely unknown.
On one level, the collection is a valuable inventory of gardens at a time when landscape design rose with the nation’s wealth and cultural aspirations but then disappeared during the Great Depression. Many of them record “a vanished experience of this exuberance in America for the garden,” said C. Ford Peatross, director of the library’s Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering.
For Johnston’s admirers, the images represent a true artist at work, one who would manipulate her pictures at every stage in pursuit of the perfect evocation of a given garden.
Cleared of people, weeded and swept, and sometimes replanted, the gardens were meticulously staged for Johnston to employ artistic principles of composition. She would re-frame the image when it was converted from a glass — or, later, film negative — to the glass slide. Painting black-and-white glass transparencies in an age before color photography was an industry, but Johnston’s slides were prepared at a level of detail way beyond the norm, said Helena Zinkham, chief of the library’s prints and photographs division.
Johnston selected the best colorists to paint the glass and guided them to tweak hues to achieve the perfect herbaceous border, or make the window frames a fetching shade of green, or put in clouds to relieve a washed-out sky.
In an arts-and-crafts bungalow in Montecito, Calif., a rambling rose is caught at the peak of bloom, by Jove, with each of hundreds of blossoms hand colored. Along a garden wall in Pasadena, Calif., an arched garden gate is a study in light and shadow, the gate symbolically closed, and with a dash of blue hydrangea there and pink climbing rose there.