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Alfred Cheney Johnston: Remarks on the Female Body_profdash by David for group historicalziegfeld Jan 24, 2012
From the unpublished memoir, "I Never Wore Tights."
Cheney had come from six years as an art student—with the firm conviction that a woman’s body was beautiful. “In 1917, women didn’t display their bodies—except on stage,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t’ fashionable. On the other hand, you were just wasting time and plates if you tried to make interesting or artistic photographs of them in those horribly over-decorated gunnysacks they wore as clothes. One of Ziegfeld’s requirements was that a girl must have a beautiful figure. From the first day I went to work for him, I determined I was not going to hide those figures. I didn’t. Instead, I draped them. Revealingly, of course. If I hadn’t draped them that way, I might just as well have photographed them in their hideous street clothes.
“But, you know, there is such a thing as taste. I’ve never been interested in making lewd photographs. On the other hand, I’ve always believed that if a woman had a beautiful body, it would be shown. That’s why I’ve always used the simplest of drapes. Effectively, tastefully, of course; but never as an excuse for lewdness nor for covering up a beautiful figure.
Clothes which hid, and corsets which distorted, beautiful figures had never been part of his art training. He saw no reason to make them part of his photographs. . .
His simplest drape is, of course, a single sheath of black lace, which he has used effectively in many of his photographs. “A piece of black lace, a curtain ring as earring, a mirror, tambourine or palette” were all he needed, or wanted, to drape a beautiful figure. To these simple elements he added the genius of his interpretation, through his camera, in order to produce striking, fresh, unique photographs.
His favorite drape had always been a single strip of black velvet. He has used it again and again, in many ways: sometimes to disguise a sharp elbow, sometimes to accentuate the soft curves of a beautiful back, but always he has used it both artfully and artistically.
When he girst began working with black velvet, his colorblind plates did not reproduce the folds to suit him. The highlights were too brilliant. Disgussted, he threw the offending velvet on the studio floor, whent back to his sheath of black lace, a gamine costume of torn pants, shirtwaist and hat, or an old, ragged dress. This latter costume soon acquired a unique aura. “It was claimed that anyone photographed in that ragged old dress would become a movie star.
Eventually he sent the velvet to be dry cleaned; tried again. Much his satisfied amazement, the folds recorded much more softly on his dry plates. “Don’t use velvet fresh, as you have bought it,” he advises. “Throw it onto the floor, kick it around for a while. Then have it dry cleaned and you’ll find it will be your best, most versatile drape.
I have included images below of the black lace, the drape, and the gamine outfit. But I ask Group members to propose which dress is meant as the 'ragged dress." David S. Shields