Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (March 21, 1867 – July 22, 1932) was born in Chicago, the son of a German immigrant father who ran the successful College of Music. Even as a boy Flo showed a penchant for creative publicity: once going too far when he sold kids tickets to see a school of “invisible fish” that turned out to be nothing more than a glass bowl filled with water. The resulting fuss taught him a valuable lesson: in his adult career, he always tried to build his publicity around the best talent he could find.
In 1893, Ziegfeld’s father opened The Trocadero, a nightclub designed to capitalize on the city’s upcoming World’s Fair. When the clubs mix of classical music and variety acts failed to draw much of an audience, Flo offered to save the day; given a free hand he booked strongman Eugene Sandow and staged a massive publicity campaign.
After saving his grateful father from bankruptcy Ziegfeld decided to try his luck on Broadway and his 1896 Broadway revival of A Parlor Match had two hit songs, “Daisy Bell” (also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two”), and Anna Held’s performance of the playful “Won’t You Come and Play With Me?” which made her a national celebrity. Over the next twelve years Ziegfeld produced seven Broadway musicals, each running for a few weeks in New York before touring.
The Shubert Brothers, owners of the new Hippodrome Theater, were having such success staging lavish “reviews” of current events-related songs and skits that competing New York Theater owners Klaw and Erlanger were looking for an promising alternative. They agreed to finance Ziegfeld’s new Follies, which opened on July 8, 1907 at the theater’s rundown roof garden which Erlanger re-christened “The Jardin de Paris”, borrowing the name of a popular Parisian night spot.
From the start Ziegfeld offered an audience-pleasing combination of creative visual spectacle, topical comedy and beautiful girls: after its success in New York the first Follies went on a brief tour, featuring the “Ziegfeld Girls” as mosquitoes from the New Jersey marshes flying through the Holland Tunnel (which was then under construction). These showgirls followed on the heels of the “Florodora girls”, who had started to “loosen the corset” of the Gibson Girl in the early years of the twentieth century. Decked out in Erté designs, the girls gained many young male admirers and quickly became objects of popular adoration. Many were persuaded to leave the show to marry, some to men of substantial wealth. The Follies continued into 1931, and the Ziegfeld Ball in New York City continued as a social event of the season for years after the last production of the Follies.
Alfred Cheney Johnston (April 8, 1885–1971) was born in New York City, and at the age of 18 he enrolled at The Art Students League of New York, later transferring to the National Academy of Design in New York City where he studied to be an illustrator. The required drawing and painting classes from the Academy’s rigorous training program would prove to have a significant influence on his later photography.
Cheney started experimenting with photography by taking portraits of friends and fellow students attending his art classes. At this time portrait artists were making a good living and it’s likely that his mentor (Charles Dana Gibson; creator of the “Gibson Girl”, an American icon of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century) advised him that there was a good living to be made specializing in photographic portraiture. He applied the knowledge and principles he’d absorbed from his painting classes to his portrait photography, and throughout his life many would compare his photographic technique to that of fine art painting.
Around 1916 Cheney’s photography was brought to the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld: after seeing examples of his portrait photography, Ziegfeld invited the young Johnston to become official photographer for the Follies. Cheney stipulated that his name be included as a byline below every one of his photographs, which proved to be an excellent business move as the photos quickly became popular and the byline brought him significant exposure for film companies and advertising agencies.
Ziegfeld promoted his shows as “Glorifying the American Girl” and it was Johnston’s job to capture Ziegfeld’s vision on film. Cheney’s portraits of Ziegfeld’s girls became world famous: like the “Gibson Girl”, he went on to create the “Ziegfeld Girl” which became the next standard of beauty for a new generation of Americans.
His nude photography redefined the genre, creating a refined visual erotic differing from the vulgar French postcard and the misty nude dancers of pictorial photography. His late book, Enchanting Beauty, marked a departure from his early work, manifesting the surrealism and visual wit of Manasee studio in Vienna, and presenting visual homages to the nude styles of E. B. Hesser and Nickolas Muray. Cheney’s approach to his photographic work was painterly. Indeed, in a significant number of his portrait and erotic images he painted backgrounds directly on the negative. What appears to be as painted backdrop or patterned wall is a semi-abstract impression hand rendered on the glass or film.
Cheney had a very lucrative career with the Follies until the stock market crash of 1929. The Follies were hit hard: Ziegfeld lost all of his money and died in 1932 as a result of the strain. Cheney continued to work commercially in NYC, but with the loss of the Follies account it seemed as though h had lost his identity.
He rarely discussed his photographic methods in print, but in one revealing interview with Violet Dare in 1928 he spoke candidly about many of the dimensions of his art:
[Violet Dare comments on the beauty of the backgrounds and asks about them.]
“I paint them in . . . . You see I studied art for ten years before I even thought of making photographs. I can’t get away from it, of course. Now, the composition of a picture means a great deal. Take this, for instance (‘this’ being a picture of a pretty girl in a bit of black chiffon and lace, a charming piquant thing,) Look at just the figure, without anything else; not so very nice, is it? But-with the drapery on the wall here, and this spray of leaves down the other side, the whole thing becomes more like a painting. . . . Take a woman in everyday life, a very beautifully gowned woman, say a dowager on her way to a wedding. Let her stand in the middle of a crowded elevator in a cheap department story. Instantly she is out of place, the effect of her manner, her gown, her breeding, is likely to be discounted, isn’t it? She’s in the wrong environment. Well, in my photographs I try to create the proper environment, just as we try to create it for ourselves in real life.” -Violet Dare, ‘Is Your Beauty Invisible,’ Wheeler Syndicate, 1928.
In 1930, Cheney became associated with Broadway producer-director Alexander Leftwich, serving on his production team as art director for the musicals “Dollars Up” and “Daisies Won’t Tell” which he co-produced. Daisies flopped in January 1931 during its out of town try-out in Philadelphia, but would eventually transmute into the 1937 musical “Orchids Preferred”. Johnston incorporated himself on December 3, 1931 and began the direct sales of his nudes to the public, broadened his commerical work, and provided lighting design both credited [“Sea Legs”] and uncredited for several Broadway productions.
In October of 1934 the Smithsonian Institution exhibited a selection of his portraits which garnered extravagant praise in the press. In 1937 Swan Publishing Co. of New York City issued a collection of Alfred Cheney Johnston nudes, Enchanting Beauty. It sold for 75 cents.
After the war Cheney attempted to begin again in 1949 by opening a photography studio in New Haven, CT and another in Seymour, a small town close to Oxford, but both studios were short lived. He joined a number of camera clubs, giving lectures and demonstrations at the yearly conventions of these organizations and also taught photography to small groups at his studio in Connecticut. In the 1960’s while in his late 70’s Cheney attempted to donate his entire studio and his photographic work to various organizations in NYC and Washington DC but no one was interested or able to store it: he contacted the Museum of Modern Art where Edward Stiechen was the curator of the photography department to offer the museum a collection but even Stiechen turned him down.
Alfred Cheney Johnston died alone in 1971, survived only by his cat and the remains of thousands of portraits from a faded era which had made him famous. The world of the 1970’s with the Vietnam War, rock music and fine art photography had a lock on the attention of the NYC art world and Cheney’s passing went largely unnoticed. Shortly thereafter, in January of 1973, the Library of Congress mounted a memorial exhibition of his portraits.
In 2006, the book “Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston” by Robert Hudovernik was published. Today, Johnston is considered a top photographer of his time, among the ranks of Steichen, Horst, Arnold Genthe, and others.