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The Gorgeous Jazz Age Photography of Alfred Cheney Johnston

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Mary Pickford, win one knee balancing on a wicker chair, gazes into a full-length mirror
Legendary actress Mary Pickford poses for Alfred Cheney Johnston in 1920. Prints and Photographs Division

In the Jazz Age, when the hot new music and racy new sensibilities were sweeping across pop culture, it perhaps reached its zenith in the Ziegfeld Follies. The Broadway musical revues produced by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., began in 1907 and ran for more than two decades at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The shows featured dance numbers, comedy acts and shapely young women in skimpy outfits. The shows, particularly those at midnight, became legendary for their style, pizzazz and sex appeal.

The court photographer for the Follies, Alfred Cheney Johnston  ̶  who later donated more than 200 of his photographs to the Library  ̶  captured the era and helped create the celebrity glamour shot, soon to become an industry standard. These were soft-focused, well-composed, sepia-toned portraits with Old Master lighting. In so doing, Cheney also became one of the first celebrity photographers, and certainly one of the most famous of the day.

“I try to make not just a photograph of a girl’s face and figure but one of her personality as well,” Johnston told a newspaper columnist in 1928. “I suit everything to the personality of the person whose picture I’m making. Lights, background, composition – everything.”

Actress Barbara Stanwyck, seated, wearing a flapper dress
Barbara Stanwyck, who would go on a long career in film and television, began her career as a Ziegfeld showgirl in the 1920s. Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston. Prints and Photographs Division.

Stars flocked to him. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Helen Hayes. John Barrymore. Barbara Stanwyck. Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Marilyn Miller. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Helen Hays. Mae Murray. Billie Dove.

“His spellbinding portraits … adorned a vast array of newspapers and magazines of the era,” writes author Robert Hudovernik in “Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston,” which draws in part on the Library’s photographs. The book was published in 2006 and reissued late last year. “They dramatically contributed to the adoration of stars by their fans, who worshipfully pasted them in their scrapbooks or tacked them onto their bedroom walls.”

Black and white headshot of Johnston, circa 1921. He wears a suit and tie, wire-rimmed glasses and a moustache. He looks directly at the camera, unsmiling.
Alfred Cheney Johnston, circa 1921. Photo: Unknown, Public domain, Wikipedia commons.

At the height of Johnston’s career, he sometimes charged $500 to $1,400 for a set of a dozen prints, the equivalent of $14,000 to $40,000 today. In these celebrity shots, and in his stylish, high-end photos for advertising campaigns, he created a sensuous atmosphere. Many stars (and private clients) posed nude and semi-nude, with furs and gowns and scarves draped just so. The oriental rugs and draperies in the background, the ornate furniture, the formal poses, the sepia-toned images were all designed to make the photographs look like classic paintings from an earlier era.

The twist, Hudovernik says, is that he “jazzified” them, with portraits of “modern women in the ’20s.”

This wasn’t by accident; Johnston came from a wealthy New York banking family and studied art as a student. His wife, Doris, was a painter. He was a classy, upscale sort, friends with Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams and and Charles Dana Gibson, the last of whom had created a standard of female beauty a generation earlier with his “Gibson Girl” sketches.

Johnston’s studio was in the Hotel des Artistes, a luxury co-op on the Upper West Side. He shot with a large view camera on a tripod, which produced a large glass-plate negative. He often painted the background onto the negatives.

Sepia-toned photo of a seated, semi-nude woman, facing right, with her right hand on her back hip and her left holding a large vanity mirror
“Jazz Age Beauties,” by Robert Hudovernik.

As Johnson’s fame grew, he became regarded as a new arbiter of female beauty. In 1928, he wrote a series of articles for a newspaper wire service about different kinds of classic female archetypes. One was headlined, “Typical Girl of U.S. Blends All Styles of Beauty.” In the article, Johnson dispensed step-by-step makeup advice: “When face rouge is used, it should be applied to the center of both cheeks, skillfully toned from light to dark, and just the merest speck to the center of the chin.”

The Follies came to an end in 1931 and Zeigfeld died in 1932. Still, there were Broadway revivals during the 1930s and a film, “The Great Ziegfeld,” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1938. But Johnston’s star began to fade by World War II, when he left New York for a rural Connecticut studio, rejecting Hollywood. Times were changing, but he kept to his ways and big box camera, which began to seem not so much classic as old-fashioned. By the time he died in a 1971 car crash at age 86, he was a widower living alone; he and Doris had no children. Hudovernik writes that only two people attended his funeral.

Fine-art connoisseurs never took to his work – too focused on celebrity, too commercial – and thousands of his prints, left to no museum or established collection, began to be pieced out and sold off in various sales and auctions. Hudovernik discovered Johnston’s work in the late 1990s and spent more than five years of research before publishing the first edition of his book in 2006. Cheney’s growing popularity — his prints now routinely sell for a few thousand dollars each — led to the book’s reissue in 2021.

The Library’s collection, featuring stars from the stage and film and from advertising campaigns, were hand-selected by Johnston decades earlier, Hudovernik says, when his life’s work was intact.

“It’s a gem of a collection,” he says. “These are prints he picked out as some of his best work.”

Moody black and white portrait of actor Tyrone Power. Chest and head shot. Wearing black turtleneck, unsmiling, looking to camera right
Actor Tyrone Power. Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston. Prints and Photographs Division.

His photographs still catch the eye; several of his signed prints were pulled out for display on a recent afternoon in the Prints and Photographs Division. Framed in brown mattes, they were a portal to a previous era’s ideals of sensuous beauty.

Julie Newmar, the legendary stage and screen actress (she was the first Catwoman in the original “Batman” TV series), posed nude for Johnston in the 1950s. Her mother, a Follies dancer, had posed for him decades before.

In the introduction to Hudovernik’s book, she remembers him as “distinguished,” and that his studio, even during the mid-century, like a time capsule from the Jazz Age. She lovingly recounts his legacy as a “treasure trove of magnificent photographic images that capture (his subjects) individual incandescence, as well as the energy and glamour of the dizzy, gilded era of which these stars were born.”

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Comments (4)

  1. I have always admired the work of these artistic people.

  2. More photos to admire! Thanks for educating me about Johnston.

  3. I wandered into a used bookstore some 25 years ago just as a woman was offering some Ziegfeld photos from 1916. I bought them all. There were several ACJs with his blind stamp in the corner but none, I am told, of the high-quality famous pictures. Hudovernik, I think, knows what I have.

  4. What a lovely selection of photos and an interesting slice of our “pop” cultural history. There is so much to learn and the Library of Congress is just full of such great stuff.
    Mary Pickford was such a stunner. A shame she worked with D. W. Griffith in “Birth of a Nation”. However, I also love that she was one of the founder of United Artists. I saw the doc “This Changes Everything” the other night and it spoke of how many female directors there were behind the camera until the studio system began shutting them out in the 1930s with the Hollywood Film code.. or whatever the censorship thing was called.

    Interesting that a call for “decency” led to women, supposedly the moral paragons of society (at least according to suffragist literature, and anti-suffragist literature), being shut out of the industry, and still largely under-represented today.

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