frances benjamin johnston’s garden photos

by Amy Azzarito

If there are two things I love, they are flowers and history. So I was thrilled to learn about the online release of this Library of Congress archive, which combines both passions. I’ll confess, I hadn’t heard of Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) until this release, and I’m not quite sure what rock I was hiding under because she was one of the earliest American female photographers. Born in Grafton, West Virginia, she was the only child of wealthy and well-connected parents. (Her mother had been a congressional journalist.) Her parents were so connected that the George Eastman gave Johnston her first camera, and she learned dark room techniques from the director of photography at the Smithsonian. Frances started taking photographs of friends and family before opening a photographic studio in Washington, D.C., where she took photos of everyone from Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain to Susan B. Anthony. She also had an increasing interest in photographing architectural sites and gardens. From the late 1800s to 1935, she traveled all over the country photographing gardens for magazines and lectures and documenting buildings and gardens that were falling into disrepair. More than 1,100 of Frances’ hand-colored glass-plate lantern slides that adorned her magazine articles and garden lectures have been made accessible online by the Library of Congress. (Note: I also came across this Ladies’ Home Journal article that Frances wrote in 1897, “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera.”) — Amy Azzarito

Image above: “Inellan,” Walter Douglas house, Channel Drive, Montecito, California. Porch, 1917

Image above: Laura Stafford Stewart house, 205 West 13th Street, New York, NY, wall fountain, 1922

Image above: Mrs. Francis Lemoine Loring house, San Rafael Heights in Pasadena, California, 1917

See more of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s work after the jump . . .

Image above: “Casa de Mariposa” Walter Franklin Cobb house, Butterfly Lane, Montecito, California, 1917

Image above: “The Hollow at Baberton, Midlothian,” between 1915 and 1927

Image above: “Millefiori,” Albert Barnes Boardman house, Great Plains Road and Coopers Neck Lane, Southampton, New York. Steps to flower garden, 1914

Image above: “Armsea Hall,” Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. house, Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island. Rose Trellis

Image above: “Newmar,” Senator George Almer Newhall house, 1761 Manor Drive, Hillsborough, California. Rose garden, 1917

Image above: “Flagstones,” Charles Clinton Marshall house, 117 East 55th Street, New York, New York. Tea house/sleeping porch, 1921–1922

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  • I’m thrilled you are featuring the work of Frances Benjamin Johnston. I wrote my master’s thesis on her Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, which the Library of Congress has also recently made available online at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/csas/ After spending many hours of research reading her microfilmed letters, I can attest that Johnston’s colorful personality was just as inspiring as her photographs. Thank you for posting about her work!

  • They are gorgeous! There’s also a new book to accompany the release of this collection, called “Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935. Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.” Just got my copy and it’s fantastic.

  • Wow! Awesome! Great post.

    I love the way her photos feel simultaneously classic and modern.

  • This is so interesting, what a great post. And what a privileged & positive position Frances Benjamin Johnston had. Love the historic perspective – to be able to look at garden, photography, and architecture of an earlier era, so exciting.