Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photos will debut online at Library of Congress site

In a picture taken in her Washington studio, photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston looks the part she set out to play: an artist ready to take on the world.

But if the 1896 pose with flashing petticoat, wispy cigarette and beer stein was meant to make a shocking declaration of bohemian genius, the world of fine art photography was not impressed.

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.

The 31 / 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.

At grand Thorndale in Millbrook, N.Y., a pair of swans appear in the formal lake, not just to provide a symbol of enduring love but to make lovely ripples in the aquamarine water.

In a more gritty New York rowhouse, violet shadows distract from the fire escape, and the hanging laundry looks like pastel-hued bunting.

“The slides were made to look like American impressionist pictures in a way to move the photographs and herself into this world of being an artist,” said Sam Watters, a historian based in Venice, Calif., who has spent five years studying the garden slides and helped the library identify them and place them, where appropriate, in Johnston’s 60-year career. The author of a companion book, “Gardens for a Beautiful America,” Watters is scheduled to lecture on Johnston at noon Friday at the Library’s James Madison Building.

Although the catalogue covers most of a career, the slides were made primarily during the 1910s and ’20s to permit the entrepreneurial and single Johnston to tap into a lucrative lecture circuit. She spoke to museums, societies and, most of all, garden clubs after the formation of the Garden Club of America in 1913.

By then, she had made her mark in Washington and was very much a product of the Federal City as it came of age after the Civil War. She was born in West Virginia in 1864. Her parents moved to the District in the 1870s, where her father was a senior clerk in the Treasury Department. Her mother was a journalist. After schooling at a two-year college in suburban Baltimore, Johnston went to Paris to study painting at the Academie Julian.

When she returned to Washington, she studied fine arts at the Art Students League. Although she decided to become a photographer rather than a painter, she applied the same principles of composition, tone and light to her pictures, Watters said. Johnston also received technical training from Thomas Smillie, the first photographer at the forerunner to the Smithsonian Institution.

In time, her father built her a glass-walled studio at the family home on V Street NW. Moving easily in the corridors of power, she became a portrait photographer to top government officials and photographed presidents and their wives. Theodore Roosevelt, before his presidency, commended her to Dewey, a hero of the Spanish American War. She traveled to Italy to take his picture, an image that became world-famous. She also took the last portrait of President William McKinley before his 1901 assassination, which made her much money, Watters said.

Earlier, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, she produced an astonishing image, from a high vantage point, that was reminiscent of the Venetian paintings of Canaletto.

In her role as a photojournalist, Johnston took a series of images of black and white pupils in the then-segregated D.C. Public Schools, all posed, as well as pictures of African American students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now known as Hampton University).

Later, as a garden photographer, she would pose her landscapes as she had posed people 20 years earlier.

Watters says that although other glass-lantern slides of gardens survive, the artistic skills of Johnston and her colorists raise hers to the highest level.

Peatross and Zinkham say that for all their American expansiveness and declaration of wealth, the grandest gardens retain a certain openness and warmth in Johnston’s hands.

“She injects this element of actually experiencing rather than recording the garden,” Peatross said. The online release of the slides represents a years-long ambition for the librarians. In the 1980s, they toyed with the idea of making them available on microfiche, which would have been costly. Later, digital technology was too primitive to put them online. Her slide subjects have qualities that are “intangible,” Peatross said. “That’s what makes them so engaging. I think people are just going to love these.”

Watters says he admired Johnston not just for her art but the way she was so savvy about knowing when to move on to other genres. In the 1920s, when people were tiring of the great estates of the industrialists, she embraced the City Beautiful movement and the efforts of the middle and professional classes to remove urban blight and decorate the new suburban landscape. The collection includes the naturalistic garden of the well heeled Wherry family in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. In one slide, the couple is captured in front of their cozy bungalow. In another, we see their aquatic garden, in which a bullfrog poses for the camera.

During the Depression, Johnston, then in her 60s, persuaded the Library of Congress and the Carnegie Corporation to finance her forays across the South to capture the crumbling architecture of a faded age.

Peatross, as a graduate student in 1972, recalls meeting people who knew Johnston in the 1930s. By then stoutish and apt to wear a fedora, the photographer struck an imposing figure, arriving in a sedan driven by her chauffeur.

“People remembered her as if a potentate had come through,” Peatross said. “She had a certain kind of eccentricity and was an independent woman in an era when this was quite remarkable.”

Nor were Johnston and alcohol strangers. People recalled the photographer driving along hot, washboard roads in the South with beer bottles popping from the motion, Peatross said.

Johnston settled, finally, in New Orleans and, in her early 80s, made her first garden, Zinkham said. Johnston died in 1952.

Peatross is thrilled that anyone with Internet access can now view the fleeting gardens of a lost age. “To see them, to see them in color and to see them through her eyes is, to me, just the best treat,” he said. “It’s like a magic carpet and a time machine.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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