Lost Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston was discovered by Flo Ziegfeld of the famed Ziegfeld Follies. Flo was a master of publicity and when he saw what "Cheney" was capable of creating with a large studio camera and glass plate negatives, Ziegfeld hired the young photographer on the spot. Cheney was shrewd beyond his years thanks to being mentored by family friend and famous illustrator Charles Dana Gibson who became famous for the Gibson Girl drawings.

Gibson advised Cheney to make sure every photograph of his had the name, Alfred Cheney Johnston, clearly attached to it. Thanks to that bit of advice Cheney would become renown for his amazingly beautiful photographs of the gorgeous stars of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway.

Cheney, though married since his art school days promoted himself in the Manhatten night club scene as a bachelor man about town. There is some evidence to suggest that this was an agreed upon arrangement between he and his wife Doris possibly to enhance his artistic career.

Alfred Cheney Johnston shot thousands of photographs in his life time. He was in great demand both by Flo Ziegfeld, the denizons of high society in New York City and the Hollywood Studios until the stock market crashed. It wiped out Flo Ziegfeld who'd always spent money like it was water. The Follies closed down and with it Cheney's steady and most lucrative job abruptly ended.

Cheney and his wife eventually bought a farm on the edge of Oxford, CT. The barn was converted into a photography studio. There he dabbled in giving photography lessons. On a couple occasions Johnston attempted opening studios in the surrounding towns but nothing much came of them. Alfred Cheney Johnston's star slowly faded over the years.

Sensing a need late in life to have his work live on, Johnston contacted the Museum of Modern Art where Stiechen was the curator of the photograpy department to offer the museum a collection of his famous images. Stiechen turned him down.

In the end it may have been Stiechen and Stieglitz who delivered the greatest blow to Alfred Cheney Johnston's photographic legacy. Did they deem him too commercial? If so, how unfair, for Stiechen did commercial photography throughout his career.

It appears that in the end, Alfred Cheney Johnston simply lacked the business sense to steer his photography career successfully. At the point that Johnston lost Flo Ziegfeld as his greatest and wealthiest client, his career began to slowly and systematically unravel. Johnston who was trained in the classic fine art traditions of Europe may have, in the end, been ruled totally by the his artist's soul which possessed little interest in the business side of his career as a photographer.


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