The New York Botanical Garden carved out an ambitious agenda in its Groundbreakers show – to tie the stories of six women of landscaping history, present a two-gallery recreation of an historic garden, pay tribute to the contributions of several landscapes within NYBG itself, create a poetry walk, and wrap it up with the history of early 20th-century photography and high-gloss publishing. They did it with GPS and an iPhone app, courtesy of Bloomberg.
Closing this weekend, Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them is still worth downloading from iTunes, just to get a glimpse into the lives of six landscape-gardening pioneers, see their work, and understand the popularization of American gardening long before the dawn of HGTV or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Here’s the link.
Here’s the story: back in the day (early 1900s), garden design and photography were two of the few career avenues available to women.
Way before Instagram, Photoshop, and two-way phone cameras, documenting the lush gardens involved lugging a gigantic, large-format camera up and down garden paths and around water features, processing black-and-white negatives into prints, turning some into newly-invented lantern slides, and having each slide painstakingly colored by hand. It helped if you had a car and an able-bodied assistant to help navigate the flagstone-lined paths with all the heavy gear.
Also, after the Industrial Revolution, aesthetically minded women (predating Lady Bird Johnson) felt it was time for American homescapes to get a little more spruced up.
The rich and famous were beginning to hire landscape designers to fix up the areas behind their East Side townhomes and acreages around their country estates. Why not document this and inspire upper middle class homeowners to follow suit?
The exhibition gives us a look at how artist visionaries, authors, and the publishing industry worked in tandem to record how landscape architects were creating romantic backyard landscapes and popularize beautification. Although seeing actual lantern slides, projectors, and gigantic tripods is amazing, one of the highlights is a recreation of the slide show by Frances Benjamin Johnston that basically blazed the trail of a new vision of what was possible – one image after another of gorgeous, visionary landscapes on the grounds of homes on the East Coast, California, England, and France.
In the Conservatory, the team at NYBG recreated Mrs. Rockefeller’s garden, originally designed by Beatrix Farrand, to highlight how the garden was conceived, used, and enhanced by the Asian art Mr. and Mrs. John D. collected. Since Farrand took on this project in 1926, NYBG has the sounds of America’s Jazz Age wafting through the galleries. Take a look on our Flickr page.
Another great feature of this show and the app – NYBG’s GPS feature shows you where you are in the expansive garden and encourages you to visit features where these groundbreakers had a hand – such as Marian Coffin’s ornamental conifer collection and Ferrand’s Rose Garden.
Get a closer view of the spectacular Groundbreakers in NYBG’s news-style video:
If you have a bit more time, listen to this curator lecture on the Beautiful Garden movement in America in 1900 and see the photos used by Johnston home to show suburbanites exactly how it should be done. You’ll witness garden images that hadn’t been seen since 1930. Take a look and get inspired: