Alfred Cheney Johnston produced some of the most luxuriously beautiful photographs of the 1920s. Like other great commercial photographers of his era, such as Baron de Meyer and Edward Steichen, Johnston was perfectly matched to his task. Florenz Ziegfeld's "glorification of the American girl" gave free reign to Johnston's appreciation of women: their physical beauty, their intelligence and their personal style. Working with a large portrait camera, using soft focus and crafting exhibition-quality prints, he convincingly transformed "cheesecake" into an art form.Yet he has been over-looked in almost all modern writing on photography because he violated two taboos of the standard photo-histories: he was a "late" pictorialist, and he was a commercial photographer.
In the last ten years, studio photographers, especially those working in Hollywood in the 1930s, have found their fans. With the publication of these photographs from his estate, Johnston can at last take his place among the pioneers of modern, commercial photography. Not only is it enjoyable to see the young and scantily clad Gloria Swanson, Ruby Keeler and Marion Davies, but Johnston's photographs also make 1920s chic come alive.
Those depicting total nudity were found in Johnston's estate in boxes marked "private." He, and no doubt Ziegfeld, still felt constrained by the puritanical norms that prevailed in their day.Johnston's photographs of showgirls with bared breasts go beyond the period's accepted standard of suggestive nudity. Photographs of thinly veiled breasts or exposed thighs could be hung in the theater lobby or published in magazines.
Banishing the painted backdrops and Victorian furniture of conventional celebrity portraiture, he employed an overtly "aesthetic" imagery common to the more sophisticated painted and photographic portraiture of his day. By using "Renaissance" furniture and tapestries, Oriental rugs and brasses, and attributes of the arts (such as a brush and palette or musical instruments), he created a refined and erotically charged environment for his models. The oversized "bubble," a symbol of transient beauty ubiquitous in pictorialsm, connects Johnston's work more closely to turn-of-the-century art photography. So does his printing on tissue and making of autochromes -- techniques loved by pictorialists for their delicate effects.
His most acclaimed work was a cigarette advertisement showing a beautiful model in an evening gown holding two elegant dogs on a leash, an image that suggested style and elegance but had nothing to do with the product. Although this concept was to become a standard in advertising in years to come, Johnston's use of pictorialist imagery was soon displaced by the modernist, high-contrast style of product display, which was foreign to his talents.
n 1934, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., gave Johnston a one-man show, after which he fell from public view. In the several interviews he gave to the photographic and local Connecticut press in the 1950s, Johnston reminisced about the stars of the silent screen and asserted his old-fashioned views on photographic aesthetics. He still used his old 11x14-inch camera, and he objected to the use of multiple artificial lights for studio portraiture.