When you think of celebrity photographers today, Annie Leibovitz’s name readily comes to mind. A leader in the field, Leibovitz’s studio portrait roster boasts presidents, political dissidents, movie stars and rock and rollers. Step back a few decades and Richard Avedon (1923-2004) reminds us of The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and Dwight Eisenhower. George Hurrell (1904-1992), Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Horst P. Horst (1906-1999) photographed the famous back in the 1930s, when posing celebrities for publicity shots was part and parcel of business at motion picture studios.
Before movies and Hollywood, there was the theater and Broadway. Alfred Cheney Johnston (1884-1971), a young artist with an interest in the beauty of the female form, found his calling in the excitement of the enormously successful Ziegfeld Follies, the Broadway musical revue which ran from 1907 through 1932.
For musical revues, nothing quite matched the Ziegfeld Follies for song and dance productions on a grand scale. Elaborate staging and fantastic costuming rivaled any sell-out amphitheater concert today. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (1867-1932) was the great American showman behind the vaudevillian production of song, dance and comedy that launched the careers of Fanny Brice (portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the 1968 movie “Funny Girl”), Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Bolger, among others.
Guest performers included W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. But his biggest draw were his “American Beauties,” the hand-picked showgirls deemed by Ziegfeld as the era’s standard of feminine allure. Performing to music by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, the women often donned elaborate headdresses and danced and pranced in colorful pageant garb.
Promotions for the stage productions and its stars included using glamour photography to lure ticket holders back for more. Photography in the early 20th century was being elevated to an art form, due in part to one of the period’s leading photographers, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), whose quarterly magazine Camera Work, published from 1903-1917, was dedicated to Pictorialism, an aesthetic that sought to create well-composed artistic images rather than snapshots. Working within this approach, the studio photographs of Ziegfeld’s showgirls are among the most highly collected photos of the pictorial genre today. And Johnston was the creative force behind the pictures.
The native New Yorker was schooled in painting and illustration at the National Academy of Design. After marrying in 1909, Johnston was intent on portrait painting for income. He quickly changed to portrait photography when he discovered he had a knack for the camera, which he began using as an aid in portrait studies for his paintings. Trading his paintbrush for a camera lens, he found work as a photo retouch artist and eventually got camera work for a studio. Accounts surrounding his rise to success may have been mostly invention on Johnston’s part. But, as his stories go, he was hired by the great Flo Ziegfeld while still in school and merely dabbling in photography. The dates and details remain sketchy, but we know that by 1920, Johnston was photographing Ziegfeld’s showgirls and making a good living by cultivating Ziegfeld’s vision of the American Beauty.
Unlike many commercial publicity photos of the era, Johnston’s portraits were painterly in design. With a sensibility carried over from his art school education, Johnston approached his photo sessions like a painter, poised languidly, as if beside an easel and canvas, and wielding his camera as if it were a brush in hand. In a touch of Art Nouveau, he liked to adorn his subjects with jewelry and feathers and lots of diaphanous draping scarves and shawls.
The Follies folded in 1932, in the throes of the Depression. Ziegfeld died, and Johnston continued his work in a diminished mode, taking portraits of society ladies and securing some prestigious advertising accounts. Among his best recognized work from the period is a cigarette ad featuring a beautiful woman in an evening gown, leashing two elegant dogs beside her as her silken attire flows with the wind. In 1934, the Smithsonian exhibited some of Johnston’s best photographs to rave reviews. “Enchanting Beauty,” a selection of his nudes, was released by a New York publishing house in 1937. In 1940, Johnston closed his New York studio and moved to Connecticut, where he set up a smaller studio in semi-retirement.
By mid century, demands in advertising photography had changed, and Johnston’s Pictorialist imagery was out of style. His work faded into history and remained relatively unknown for the rest of the 20th century. The popularity of recent Internet auctions show that a new generation of collectors has emerged that appreciates his aesthetic craftsmanship and the luxurious elegance exuded in his portraits from that bygone era. Nest Egg Auctions in Connecticut has become a most prominent dealer in Johnston’s photographs; it has sold more than 228 lots to date through live Internet auctions.
In 2011, an extraordinary archive of photos from Johnston’s own collection were featured at Nest Egg. A single photo of showgirl Muriel Harrison dressed in silks that bore the ACJ backstamp sold for $250. At the same sale, 25 lots sold for less than $500, and 188 lots sold for $500 to $5,000. Many of the 188, mostly of unclothed beauties, were grouped with up to 25 photos per lot. Johnston’s nudes generally bring the highest hammer price. Not all of Johnston’s original photos have his ACJ studio stamp on the verso, and it’s worth keeping in mind when considering your bid.
Anyone seeking a Johnston photo for less than $100 can turn to the Library of Congress, which can make a photo to order from its collection of 245 images that were donated by Johnston himself, before his death. The LOC file is digitized, and although it isn’t an original print on Johnston’s paper stock with his backstamp, the beauty of his work can still be appreciated and enjoyed.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.