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Alfred Cheney Johnston, Photography Magazine, March 1951_otto 30 August 2013
Photography Magazine, March 1951
Alfred Cheney Johnston - THE AMATEUR Who Glorified the ZIEGFELD GIRL
This photographer had a flair for glamour - a camera specialty that skyrocketed him to fame in the tumultous Twenties
By Arthur J. Busch
In the autumn of 1918 Alfred Cheney Johnston was an unknown amateur photographer and art student at the National Academy of Design. Six months later, such were those fabulous times, he had skyrocket to fame as a professional photographer devoted to the job of glorifying the Ziegfeld girls.
From amateur to famous professional in six months strains credulity to the breaking point today, but at the end of World War I the United States was fixing for an era of "wonderful nonsense" as incredible as any Arabian Nights talke. The circumstances in New York were right, the stage was being set, and there were enough astonishing characters behind the scenes to produce miracles at the drop of a hat. Like Peter Pan, Alfred Cheney Johnston, with a wire hooked to the back of his pants, was given wings with which he soared to fame.
And lucrative fame it was, too, in an age of piddling income taxes; for today Johnston, in his early fifties, is living in happy retirement on a country estate hight on a hill in Oxford, Conn., where between garden chores and luxurious loafing he finds plenty of time for - you guessed it, photography. Now, instead of Ziegfeld show girls, he enjoys himself in glorifying local Connecticut lovelies.
In all those years Johnston has not changed. Back in 1918 as a young amateur he had been taking pictures of his friends, specializing even then in photographing beautiful girls. One of his pretty girl subjects knew somebody who knew Florenz Ziegfeld, fabulous producer of the Ziegfeld Follies. Now Ziegfeld was an impulsive and a grandiose man who, when he saw one of Johnston's photographs, summoned the young man to his presence and thereupon offered him the job of official photographer for the Follies.
Being a young man of acumen as well as talent, Johnston, though his heart was certainly thumping violently, was not too overwhelmed by the Ziegfeld largess to impose a condition on the great impressario's proposition. He does not know what divine inspiration possessed him at the time, but somehow he managed to tell Ziegfeld that he would accept the job on condition that all photographs published carry the Alfred Cheney Johnston credit line. Ziegfeld agreed. Thereafter every photograph of a voluptuous Ziegfeld beauty printed in the newspapers and magazines of the world carried Johnston's credit line. The demand for free cheesecake was obviously tremendous and in six months the young man was famous.
Lest anyone misread this flight to fame as a fluke, it should be made clear that Johnston delivered the goods. When this miraculous opportunity came he was prepared. He was an excellent photographer with a flair for the kind of chi chi that appealed not only to Flo Ziegfeld but to the madcap decade in which he flourished. He produced a product indigenous to the times. It was as if the [ ? ] of 1918 automatically had released the prohibitory bars erected by a defunct [ ? ], and Johnston's ornate photographs of the Ziegfeld beauties were harbingers of a new, less modest decade to come. Viewed from the vantage point of the atomic age, however, this [ ? ] seems rather funnier than felonious.
Revealed through yards of transparent and opaque drapery with which he always has worked, the Ziegfeld girls figures were made undulatingly [ ? ]. Thus draped they assumed provocative postures in pictures whose lighting schemes were skillfully calculated to amplify the girls' already ample endowments. Demand for the pictures spread like wildfire among newspapers and magazines all over the world. Small wonder that Alfred Cheney Johnston became famous within six months after Ziegfeld picked him from the throng of amateur photographers. Although official history does not say so, Johnston, not Ziegfeld, was the real glorifier of the the Ziegfeld girl, whose elaborately draped image Johnston created in metallic silver for all to see.
But Ziegfeld must be credited with being astute in giving Johnston, an unknown amateur, so important a photographic assignment. He had based his decision on a few photographs, among them several of nude girls adorned in drapes, which was the closest one could get to nudity without violating any laws. Johnston's unquestioned flair for the female figure and a certain taste in combining it with draperies in pleasing compositions caught Ziegfeld's eye. Showman that he was, Ziegfeld knew what the public wanted.
In that 1918 autumn, young Johnston, excited by his budding new career, lost no time in renting a studio on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifty-seventh street and Sixth avenue, with famed artist Neysa McMein as a neighbor. He bought a big 11x14 Century Studio camera to supplant the smaller 5x7 view he had been using as an amateur. With a few necessary props, quantities of draperies and costume jewelry, Johnston was in business. The Ziegfeld girls filled his days and they posed not under spots and floods but sunlight diffused through the studio skylight. Johnston in 1919 was using the natural light to which so many photographers today have but recently returned.
The tide rose rapidly. Soon society women, envious of the Ziegfeld girls' physical charms, began flocking to his studio to be photographed revealingly draped or completely nude - at fabulous prices, of course. It was inevitable that Hollywood would buy this man's photographic talent, and in 1920 he was summoned to the movie capital where he photographed every silent screen star in sight. Today his file of photographs of the pre-sound era is one of the most extensive.
Johnston was something of a sensation in the Hollywood of 1920 where the wiseacres called him, certainly not without justification, Mr. Drape. His drapes went with him everywhere and he used them in the most unexpected places. When Tyrone Power came to be photographed, Johnston wrapped a velvet drape around his neck. The result was a very dramatic Hamletesque kind of portrait which, says Johnston, Annabel, Power's wife at the time, prized as the best anyone ever had made of her handsome husband.
Famous people from all over the world came to Mr. Drape for their portraits and it wasn't long before he was knee-deep in advertising assignments, being one of the pioneers in that field. His accounts include such national products as Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Woodbury's, Dobbs, Milgrim, Lux, Van Raalte stockings, French Line, Martel brandy, and so on. In photography as well as the theater Johnston made himself a celebrity. He appeared regularly at the most fashionable restaurants and night clubs and his sumptuous new studio at the Hotel Des Artistes was the scene of many a stupendous party at which celebrities mingled with the Ziegfeld beauties Johnston was glorifying in his photographs.
That era, of course, came to an abrupt close with the great depression, and as if by divine plan and as a symbol of finality, Flo Ziegfeld died in 1933 when an unhappy nation already had lost its appetite for such frothy frivolity. But Johnston, no longer dependent on the Ziegfeld harem, carried on for seven more years doing advertising and editorial illustration.
In 1940 he retired to his 14-acre hilltop at Oxford, Conn., whose bucolic tranquility is in startling contrast to the life of a glamour photographer in the New York speakeasy era.
The past, however, has by no means been obliterated. Today Alfred Cheney Johnston, charming and affable, lives among the mementos of his past triumphs. The huge barn on his property is filled with the furnishings of his plush New York studios. There are the gilded grand piano, the antique grandfather's clock, Italian renaissance marble sculptures, ornate carved wood cabinets and tables, paintings, valuable tapestries and a wealth of objets d'art. The big hayloft has been turned into a studio equipped with the very same tapestries, draperies, props and lighting equipment with which he worked through two decades in New York.
Today the glorifier of the Ziegfeld girls likes to photograph nudes outdoors in natural backgrounds and indoors with draperies and tapestries. He remains a glorifier of feminine beauty and is never happier than when he finds a new model to explore with his camera. He is as enthusiastic about photography today as he was thirty years ago. He is an active member of the Hartford County Camera Club and a frequent salon exhibitor as well as judge. He has had one-man shows of his work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and in the Atlanta Art Museum.
Any amateur would turn green with envy to see Johnston in retirement. He has equipped the huge barn with automatic central heating, a dressing room with stall shower, a huge reception room, darkroom and workshop, and the big hayloft studio at one end of which he has erected a platform so heavily bedraped that it looks like a stage. Here, indeed, in 1951 are the trappings and appurtenances of the Ziegfeld era paradoxically housed on the property of a Puritan New England farm.
To this setting POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY sent Juliana Benze, well-known streamlined New York model typical of 1951's standard of beauty. Unlike the Ziegfeld girls' cupid bow mouth and long hair, Juliana's lips are full, her hair is short, and her eyes orientally made up. We wanted to see ........
[and we wanted to see the rest of this article...]
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