The Difference Between Nude and Naked




3 minutes reading

Next June Rizzoli Publishers put out the book Jazz Age Beauties - The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston. It presents the work of a photographer whose recent reputation mostly depended on a small group of eBay photo dealers. One of these online treasure hunters is Robert Hudernovik. It took him years of study to compile this book with two hundred photos.

Hudernovik evokes the atmosphere of the early nineteen hundreds, the age that brought an exiting new culture to New York, Chicago and other main cities in the US. It marked the beginning of the entertainment industry that is still with us today. Louis Armstrong and others brought jazz music to unknown heights (read about it in ‘Oh Play That Thing - Volume Two of The Last Roundup’, by Roddy Doyle), the fledgling motion picture industry laid the foundation for what soon would become Hollywood, and there were – after European example – great revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies. All this took people out of their homes and into a new way of life.

Smart but sexy
The Ziegfeld Follies was the name of a revue in New York during the 1910s and 1920s. After the example of boisterous shows in Paris, producer Florenz Ziegfeld provided musical show nights featuring dozens of scarcely dressed, singing girls. Ziegfeld started the Follies with his remarkable wife, the actress Anna Held, whom he had met in London and married in 1897. Ten years later, the show had its opening night in the New York Theatre. The charismatic Held told the Americans: “Your girls are the most beautiful in the world. If you could dress them up chic, you would have a better show than the Folies-Bergère.” In those days, Anna Held was a famous model, and people could see her face in many barber shops as well as in ads for cigars. Alfred Cheney Johnston was the regular photographer of the company. In his studio he made portraits of the dancers, emphasising their beautiful looks. They looked smart and respectable, but also had something sexy. Although Johnston’s photos sometimes showed bare breasts and bottoms, most of his images were intended as publicity shots. His work illustrates perfectly what the difference is between nude and naked. People used to call him ‘Mr Drape’. He suggested nudity by covering the feminine curves of his models with a subtle ‘dressing’ of fur, lace, silk or other fabric. The women look spectacular, graceful rather than provoking, expressing their character more so than their subordination.

Commercial pioneers
In his era, Johnston was a famous photographer. Not only did he work for the Ziegfeld Follies, he also shot portraits of many movie stars. His theatrical portraits of Mary Pickford, Fanny Brice, Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks contributed to their success as actresses. With contemporaries such as Baron de Meyer and Edward Steichen, Johnston belongs to the group of pioneers of commercial studio photography. He was one of the first to use photography as a means to help make actresses more famous. In New York, Johnston was a regular visitor to the de Algonquin Round Table, a spontaneous semi-literary society. In Hotel Algonquin, the author Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker), comedian Harpo Marx and many others met to talk about what was going on in New York and the rest of the world.

No Canon
In 1988, the photographer Jeff Dunas wrote in the no longer existing periodical Collector’s Photography why Johnston was never included in the canon: he had broken two important rules. One, he was a late ‘pictorialist’, his work primarily corresponded with late 19th-century photography, not with photography of his era; and two, he was a commercial photographer. Fortunately, a number of Johnston’s photographs are part of the collection of the German photo authority L. Fritz Gruber, who died last year, and whose collection has been transferred to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In 1934, Johnston had his last solo exhibition in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. But when the popularity of revues collapsed in the thirties and with the end of silent movies, Johnston’s popularity also decreased. In 1940, he traded his New York studio for a four- hectare farm in Oxford, Connecticut. Johnston died in 1971, at the age 87.