Through the Lantern Glass: The Landscape Photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston

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Although built in 1898, photographed here in 1913, “Pres Choisis,” Albert Herter’s house, located on Georgica Pond in East Hampton, N.Y., looks as though it could be a custom waterfront property in the 21st Century. The rectilinear architecture of Grovesnor Atterbury suggests early modernism cleverly softened by the landscape, designed by Adele McGinnis and Albert Herter.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) is widely considered one of America’s first great female photographers. During her heyday in the early 20th Century, she became famous for her images of U.S. presidents, foreign royalty, celebrities and other notable contemporaries. She was also one of the pioneers of landscape photography.

The Library of Congress recently released a treasure trove of Johnston’s photos capturing some of her era’s most beautiful gardens and water features. The collection is the result of extensive research and work by garden and home writer Sam Watters, who painstakingly restored over a thousand of Johnston’s “lantern slides.” Watters’ efforts resulted in his new book Gardens for a Beautiful America: 1895-1935 (Acanthus Press in Association with the Library of Congress, 2012).

Johnston’s lantern slides were typically 2.25-by-4-inch glass panels used in projectors, a popular method for projecting large images, much the way 35mm slides work today. Johnston originally created these slides using black-and-white photography and then adding color by hand. Her work often featured large modern estates, historic properties and upper-middle class homes, and was widely used in lectures as part of the “Garden Beautiful” movement of the early 20th Century.

Waterfall at Villa Aldobrandini in Lazio, Italy
In yet another example of Johnston’s work photographing Italian villas, she captured this image of a waterfall at Villa Aldobrandini in Lazio. Her method of captured moving water is demonstrated here as the water pierces a veil of greenery overtaking the stonework, which dates back to the mid-1600s.

In his work culling and researching these images, Watters did an amazing job of identifying designers and fleshing out historic details for the various properties. In looking back at these mesmerizing images, we’re treated to a tour of remarkably sophisticated exterior design as well as the lens that was Johnston’s gifted eye. In many cases, it’s not difficult to imagine these spaces being created today. Sadly, these images are all we have left of many of these properties. In some cases, the scenes depicted are still very much in place.


From a visual design standpoint, these images serve as a gallery of inspiring ideas drawn from timeless design principles. We see tremendous use of perspective, symmetry and asymmetrical balance, texture, proportion and color. In selecting the images, we focused solely on those containing water, which provide examples of wonderfully sophisticated aquatic design, from simple tiered fountains to large pools and ponds.

This collection offers a wealth of inspiring design concepts that could be readily repurposed for today’s projects. We’ve chosen a handful of images to feature here in print, with more available online. We encourage you to check out Watters’ book and/or view the entire collection of Johnston’s lantern slides on line at

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Reflection pool in southeast garden of White House
The White House once featured this lovely reflection pool in its Southeast Garden, designed by Beatrix Jones Farrand. Johnston, who was a familiar face amongst America’s political elite, made this photo in the spring of 1921 during the presidency of Warren G. Harding. The garden was originally designed several years earlier for First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson.
Water garden at Robert Cameron Rogers house in Santa Barbara, CA
This alluring water garden adorned the grounds of “Glendessary,” Robert Cameron Rogers house in Santa Barbara, Calif. Installed in 1900, the garden was the work of stone mason Peter Poole and his brother Thomas Poole.
Japanese style garden at Henry Edwards Huntington house in San Marino, CA
The influence of Japanese gardening design was on full display in 1923 at the Henry Edwards Huntington house in San Marino, Calif. The garden featuring its graceful arched bridge, weeping willows, cypress trees and elegant stone placements demonstrates the artistic fusion of plant, stone and water. Fortunately, this garden and home, designed by Myron Hunt and Elmer Gray, still exist.
Fountain of Pegasus, Villa Lante in Lazio, Italy
Johnston not only captured many of America’s most beautiful residential landscapes, she also traveled extensively in Europe where she photographed a number of historic sites. Among those she visited are some of Italy’s exquisite villas, including Villa Lante, in Lazio, Italy. This image of the Fountain of Pegasus was taken in the summer of 1925.
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