Author Q&A with Sam Watters: Gardens for a Beautiful America

September 13, 2012

Sam Watters

Architectural and landscape design historian Sam Watters (New York and Los Angeles)


Architectural and landscape design historian Sam Watters discusses Gardens for a Beautiful America 1895–1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, his new book published in April 2012 by Acanthus Press, in collaboration with the Library of Congress. The book features 250 rare hand-colored photographs of gardens taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), one of the first female photo-journalists, who rose to international prominence photographing presidents, well-known authors, and other tastemakers at the beginning of the 20th century. Much less well known is her role as a champion of the Garden Beautiful movement to restore beauty to an industrial America through garden design.

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Gardens for a Beautiful America 1895-1935: Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 2012 (Acanthus Press)

Designers & Books: Frances Benjamin Johnston was in demand as a lecturer on the movement to beautify America through garden design and horticulture, and her work was enthusiastically praised by Frederick Law Olmsted. How did someone once so acclaimed—someone who was described as “a force of nature”—become forgotten? And how did you come to be interested in her?

Sam Watters: Fame comes and goes with taste, but Johnston will always have a place in the history of photography as an early portraitist, architectural photographer, and photo-journalist. I became interested in Johnston through her portraits of Teddy Roosevelt’s children with their pets at The White House.

D&B: What was the significance of gardens at the time when Johnston was photographing them? And what was there about Johnston and her approach to photography that made her such a natural ally for this subject matter?

SW: Gardens signified class and refinement to the rich seeking status in rough-edged, industrial America.
Johnston succeeded by mastering in photography the pictorial conventions understood—and expected—by her clients. 

D&B: In your chapter titled “The Garden Photograph” you say, referring to Johnston’s era, that “garden photography advanced with new camera technology.” What technologies are you referring to? And how did the perception of photography as a science give way, while Johnston was practicing it, to that of a fine art?

Arcady, Montecito, California, 1917


SW: Portable glass plates and camera lenses that reduced distortion made possible Johnston’s outdoor work. During her lifetime, garden photography, for the most part, remained a commercial art, despite Johnston’s campaign for fame as a fine artist-photographer.

D&B: Since they are so important in Johnston’s work, can you explain the basics of glass-plate lantern slides and how they were such a good technology match for her focus on gardens?

SW: Lantern slides are two, 3.25 x 4 inch glass plates, one clear and one with a photograph, taped together. Specialists colored the photo plate with watercolor or oil. Slides were didactic and magical as new media, ideal for Johnston’s garden club patrons who wanted to study gardens and be entertained at lectures Johnston presented from New York to California.

D&B: You note that Johnston collected historic and contemporary books about American landscape design. What were some of these books?

SW: Her library included standards—the textbook, An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design (1917)—and rarities—the theoretical An Essay on the Picturesque (1794). Books and on-the-ground experience taught Johnston how to photograph gardens.

D&B: Johnston’s images, and the way they are reproduced in your book, are really stunning. Can you talk about a few of your favorites?

SW: Johnston produced each slide to make a point. The Charles C. Marshall Townhouse stairway garden in New York answered the question: “How does a successful city gardener hide the daily wash?”

Charles C. Marshall Townhouse Garden, New York, 1922

The image of  the Wellington S. Morse House Terrace Gate, in Pasadena, California, shows a modern-day secret garden pictured with the poetic convention of the closed door.

Wellington S. Morse House, Terrace Gate, Pasadena, California, 1923

As a social progressive who thought that gardens of the poor could be as beautiful as gardens of the rich, Johnston compared this janitor’s basement in New York to Long Island estates.

Janitor Apartment, New York City, c. 1922. Stairwell garden

Johnston’s photograph of an iris border in Washington, D.C., illustrates the tradition that Lady Bird Johnson later made famous—your tax dollars can green America.

West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C., 1921. Irises along the embankment

D&B: How hard was it from a print production perspective to achieve the color quality in the book? Were any special processes involved?

SW: Two issues guided Photoshop artists and printer proofing: how to reproduce colors to reflect the luminosity of projected slides, and how to minimize the black-and-white cast of the underlying photographic plate, which would not have been distinct to Johnston’s audiences.

Beacon Hill, Arthur Curtiss James House, Newport Rhode Island, 1914. Blue Garden, view to pergola

D&B: What is your favorite France Benjamin Johnston quote?

SW: “What must be the sensations of a visiting Martian, when after thrilling to the matchless beauty of the New York skyline… [he sees] the squalor and sordidness of many of our city districts…?” (1922).

D&B: With your helping to rekindle interest in Johnston, what will be the significance of her rediscovery?

SW: The garden photographer played a role in defining American landscape design.

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

Thornewood, Chester Thorne House, Lakewood, Washington, 1923. View to house from flower garden

SW: Yes, on my grandfather, the avant-garde writer and musician—a Gertrude Stein favorite—Bravig Imbs.

All images taken from Gardens for a Beautiful America, courtesy of Acanthus Press; from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


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