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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Lens for Beauty: J. Horace McFarland and the Civics of Garden Photography

One of the most rewarding parts of being a research fellow here at the Archives of American Gardens is being introduced to collections you never expected to find. Back in October, I had the opportunity to learn more about J. Horace McFarland by putting together a selection of his images from the Archives of American Gardens on the Smithsonian’s Pinterest board for American Archives Month. McFarland (1859-1948) is a compelling historical figure because his life’s work supported many of the movements that shaped the American landscape during the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. He was well-known as an authority on roses, advocate for environmental preservation and the national parks, leader in the City Beautiful Movement, as well as a writer and publisher. As his images in the Archives of American Gardens attest, he was also an avid photographer, and used the medium to convey his civic, aesthetic, and environmental sensibility.

McFarland's interest in photography grew from his enthusiasm for flowers and gardening. While many people at the turn of the twentieth century were sometimes skeptical of the way technology seemed to distance humans from the natural world, McFarland embraced photography as a way to connect with the environment and learn about places. "Not the least of the advantages of flower-photography," he described, "is the insight it gives one into the mysteries and the elegancies of Mother Nature, and the acquaintance it fosters with the plants and trees of one’s immediate neighborhood." Like time spent in "the field and meadow, in the glen and forest" that could lead to a "vast enlargement of one’s horizon," McFarland believed carefully looking through a camera's lens could increase an individual's appreciation for nature. To start a photography project, he suggested beginners take up a whole family of flowers, such as roses or "hunt up the common, yet unobserved flowers of our native trees." Whatever the subject, McFarland stressed that photography was an opportunity that should be open to every nature lover. "No aristocratic orchids need apply," he proclaimed. "This is a democracy of beauty for all."

Hand-colored glass lantern slides of Rose – Roger Lamberlin, (left) and Clematis – Duchess of Albany (right), c. 1930s. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

In addition to photographing individual flowers or groupings of plants, McFarland also stressed that "however well we may succeed in photographing compositions and combinations…we miss the greatest beauty – that of the environment and situation." These included the surroundings of wild, designed, and built environments. As he described, "the finest 'wild' flowers I know are suitably and happily located in an 'American Garden,' not forty minutes distant from Philadelphia’s City Hall." McFarland's broad-ranging interest in the appearance of all types of landscapes also brought his lens for beauty to the City Beautiful Movement transforming America’s cities at the turn of the twentieth century. With a mission of "photographing for the civic good," McFarland hoped his photographic eye might help others to realize that, "a modern city owes its inhabitants something more than taxation, police protection, typhoid-laden water, imperfect sewage and partial fire-protection."

Glass lantern slide of an unidentified garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, c. 1930. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

As president of the American Civic Association, McFarland used photography to advocate for the types of aesthetic changes he wanted to see in the built environments of American cities. "The first essential point…in photographing for the civic good," McFarland wrote, "is to emphasize the thing which is most impressive as ugly or beautiful – for the rule works both ways." He continued,

If it is a waterfront of the characteristic American type, decorated with the wastes of civilization, used as a dump, malodorous and disgusting, then the camera must be planted so as to command the worst features of the dump. A proper wide-angle lens…will then inevitably emphasize and slightly exaggerate the ugliness of the place, so that, when confined in the limits of the resulting photograph…it will arouse and chock the residents of that community. 

The same general rule applied to showing what McFarland considered beautiful elements. As he described, "If it is a proper and dignified public fountain or public building, or other structure on the public property that is to be emphasized, it is wise not to try to show it all, but to show its important points of recognition…" On whatever subject the viewer chose to focus their lens, McFarland cautioned that "the photographer for the civic good must be fair. He ought to observe and photographically record only conditions that are prominently bad or good." While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, McFarland argued that photography was one way Americans with the means could connect with the places they lived and advocate for improvements to the spaces they called home.
The McMillian Plan for the National Mall in Washington, DC was one of the most iconic City Beautiful projects, although the movement also influenced the design of cities large and small. Left: The Washington Monument with cherry blossoms in full bloom. Right: Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut. Both images suggest types of “good” scenes McFarland urged viewers to capture in their photographs, as well as the types of public spaces he hoped would transform all American cities into better places. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

To enlist other residents and city leaders in addressing the problems of the city, however, required photographs to be shared with a wider audience. While Pinterest and Power Point were certainly not options during McFarland’s time, he did broadcast his images and writings through a long-running series of columns for Ladies’ Home Journal beginning in 1904, which, in part, helped to educate and engage a generation of women in the work of the City Beautiful Movement. "The most effective means…toward the accomplishment of civic good through photographs," McFarland wrote, "is to make them into lantern-slides, and then to show these lantern-slides to the people, who will recognize the views presented…Through a good lantern-slide much more of a photograph is brought to attention in this fashion than ever seen on the best possible print on paper." Illuminated on the walls of lecture halls and meeting rooms across the United States, photographic images were part of the way many Americans began conversations that helped them better understand the environments they experienced and reimagine the places where they lived.

 McFarland once stated that "A photograph is seldom, like a flower, complete and finished in itself." Today, a large portion of McFarland’s prolific photographic work is held in the Archives of American Gardens, where it continues to help researchers from many disciplines build a more complete understanding of the past and its influence on our ever-changing landscape of the present.

J. Horace McFarland, “Photographing Flowers and Trees,” The Photo-Miniature: A Magazine of Photographic Information, Vol. II, No. 13, April 1900.
J. Horace McFarland, “Photographing for the Civic Good,” Suburban Life, June 1911.
Ernest Morrison, J. Horace McFarland: A Thorn for Beauty, 1995.

Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow
Smithsonian Gardens

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