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John de Mirjian

Time Period: 
1922-1928
Location: 
1595 Broadway, Manhattan
Biography: 

This Broadway glamour photographer's short but brilliant heyday lasted six years, from 1922 until his death in a speeding roadster alongside a mysterious woman in 1928. An extravagant personality given to gambling and womanizing, de Mirjian brooked no criticism of his taste or resistance to his desire, throwing temper tantrums during photo shoots if sitters failed to follow his directions. In February 1927, Olga, his wife of a little over one year, sued for divorce, citing repeated physical abuse and being forced to labor at her husband’s studio around the clock. In her court testimony she revealed that the photographer cleared $25,000 annually, making his one of the most lucrative studios in the city.

One reason for his financial success was his arrangement with Earl Carroll, impresario of "The Vanities," to photograph publicity for his revue, a show that pushed the envelope in the theatrical display of female flesh. In 1925 de Mirjian became a photographic celebrity when actress Louise Brooks sued to stop his distribution of risque photos taken of her in 1923. Brooks in the court claimed that a nude shoot was the publicity price every girl new to Broadway must pay. De Mirjian testified, "Have I not photographed a thousand others wearing maybe a shoe, maybe a hat, maybe a shawl. . . and not only the girls of the shows but the women of society as well."

The bulk of de Mijian's risque photography appeared in two magazines of the mid-1920s: Art Lovers and Artists and Models. Modeled on Edwin Bower Hesser's successful Arts Monthly Pictorial begun in 1922, these soft paper monthlies featured shots of semi-nude showgirls in artistic poses. In 1925 de Mirjian was supplying imagery for both magazines. It is interesting to observe that the Schubert Brothers, who sponsored the annual "Artists and Models" girlie revues on Broadway were rivals of Earl Carroll, de Mirjian's principle employer. Yet their appreciation of de Mirjian's mastery of drape shots and nudes overrode their disinclination to patronize an artist in the hire of a rival. Besides showgirls in drapes and society women in stylish dishabille, de Mirjian had a particular talent for "two-shots," portraits showing the interaction, usually romantic, of two persons.

His career ended spectacularly on September 24, 1928, when his Peerless roadster careened off the Jericho Turnpike, running the length of Long Island, going 70 miles an hour. His passenger, a married actress, Mrs. Gloria Christy, survived and told authorities she was his half-sister. She was not.

John's brother, Arto de Mirjian, who had assisted in the studio, took over the business. He kept it a going concern until 1950, surviving debt proceedings in the early 1930s and a merger with Nasib, the vaudeville and dance photographer. Arto de Mirjian continued the studio's documentation of Broadway productions and achieved in portraiture an expertise equal to that of his brother. He remained an active photographer in New York until about 1950 when he sold his archive to the Culver Service, moved to California, and set up a studio in the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

NOTES: NYT (9-25-1928), 23; Private Correspondence Arto de Mirjian, Jr.; "Wife Sues De Mirjian," NYT (2-3-1927), 14. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

For such a temperamental figure, de Mirjian's visual style is strikingly free of shadow. He based his vocabulary of poses on that of Alfred Cheney Johnston and, like Johnston, specialized in the portraiture of women. De Mirjian's showgirl pictures are flooded with light.

His portraits, male and female, dramatize personality. He liked extravagant dress and sitters with a daring spirit, so his photographs are among the most striking visually of the 1920s. He did occasional production photography, usually of the revues. His more risque imagery--showgirl nudes and draped model photos--were staples of the underground sex magazines of the period. Next to Hollywood photographer E. B. Hesser, he was the most widely published celebrant of celebrity flesh of the jazz age.