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Alfred Cheney Johnston, Dorothy Dickson, & Ziegfeld (Unpublished Memoir)_profdash
by David for group historicalziegfeld July 9, 2011

In Gordon Bell's ms memoir of Alfred Cheney Johnston's early career, "I Never Wore Tights," the first chapter describing how Johnston came to become the Follies' photographer makes no sense. It presents a myth in which Johnston, an amateur lensman is elevated to professional status by Ziegfeld's fiat. 'As an art student, he had less than no experience as a professional photographer. His entire knowledge of formal pictures of any form consisted of his art training and the few photographs he had made in Mount Vernon and of other art students and Friends at the National Academy.' Somehow he takes some photos of dancer Dorothy Dickson, who with her partner Hyson, had come to notice in the Coconut Grove early in 1917. "Why Dorothy Dixon and her husband, Carl Hyson, had invited him, Alfred Cheney Johnston, to the Follies and the Midnight Frolic with them, Cheney had no idea. True, he had made some photographs of Dorothy. But surely his photographs couldn't be the reason he had been included in the Hyson's Ziegfeld party--unless this was Dorothy's way of saying "Thank you."" When Ziegfeld later joins the table, he asks Johnston to take special studies of this Follies performers, just like the ones he had done of Dickson. Ziegfeld's request seems an arbitrary intuition about the genius of an untried artist, and Johnston's career a happenstance based on amazing good fortune. The elevation of an unknown talent to stardom was, of course, THE favorite Ziegfeldian myth--the plot of "Sally" and the compulsive theme of F. Z.'s many reflections on the chorines who went through various versions of the Follies. If Johnston was entirely an amateur who did not exhibit his work (portraits of other art students), how did Dickson come to him for a sitting? As I have suggested before, Johnston is romanticizing his emergence as a credited artist. The Dickson images that attracted Ziegfeld's eye were shot before her engagement with the Follies and the Midnight Frolic in June.

When we look to printed sources for images of Dickson from early 1917, the set reproduced below (images taken from Jane Rasa's site) immediately attract notice. They appear under the imprimatur of Sarony Studio, and they possess several hallmark motifs of Cheney's posing preferences. It would appear that Johnston was working for Ernest Burrow at Sarony Studio as a photographer and developer before Dickson brought him to the attention of Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld would not have been making a snap judgment on the basis of a handful of prints from one sitting; Sarony's portraits of 1916 Follies members, and also F. Z.'s wife Billie Burke, also seem from Johnston. So, the impresario was not hiring a tyro, but someone working for one of New York's most reputable firms whose work had appeared in mass circulation print. Hardly the startling tale that Gordon Bell weaves . . . but certainly more plausible and more agreeable to the surviving visual evidence. David S. Shields

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    kittyinva wrote on Jul 10, '11
    Is there a date on the ms? It so reminds me of the nonsense the fan mags wrote in the teens and twenties. For that matter, myth vs. truth was popular through most of the sixties. Thanks for sharing this, though. It is entertaining if not elucidating!

    kittyinva wrote on Jul 10, '11
    Another thought: Marcelle Earle says in her bio that Johnston was the premiere photographer for Ziegfeld, and that having her portrait done in 1917 or '18 (I can't remember which year) was the highest honor for a Ziegfeld girl. So Johnston was already Ziegfeld's favored photographer at the time the ms is making him out to be a young yokel. Kathie

    profdash wrote on Jul 10, '11
    There is little doubt that July of 1917 was when Johnston first appeared in print under his own name--a series of Ziegfeld girl portraits in Vanity Fair. My current thinking is that he work for Sarony Studio from 1915 to 1917, shooting along side Ernest Burrow. The ms memoir looks to be something done in the 1935. The title advertises a span of 1917 to 1934, but the 100 pages that were completed only take the story into 1922.

    ohikkoshi wrote on Jul 16, '11
    "Sarony's portraits of 1916 Follies members, and also F. Z.'s wife Billie Burke, also seem from Johnston"

    ...and Marion Davies?
    Sarony, 1917

    Vlad, that was what I was leading up to in the rework of the Billie Burke album which is why I temporarily have them in the order I have them in the folder.

    Not only that but there is a certain "T. Kajiwara" credited in some of the movie mags for a few Billie Burke photos that look very much like ACJ photos. I have the whole thing written up as a look at ACJ, Kajiwara, perhaps Victor Georg (also Billie Burke photos) possibly working for Sarony Studios.

    Title I have on the write-up is: The Sarony Studio, Kajiwara, Alfred Cheney Johnston Connection: George Kleine, George Eastman and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC).

    Now if I could only get the album done :smile:

    I had asked back in 2008 about the Billie Burke Sarony photos possibly being by ACJ, particularly the Gloria's Romance portraits, but never received any comments.

    Vlad, I think you are correct re: the Marion Davies/Sarony photo also.
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