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Alfred Cheney Johnston Creates His Studio

Some of the inevitable questions surrounding theatrical photography were how someone entered into such a charmed profession, how one could succeed long term in a business so blown by the gales of fashion, and how one interacted with the most beautiful and talented people in the world. Of the stories surrounding the emergence of the greatest camera artists, those connected with the discovery of Alfred Cheney Johnston were most colored with mystique. The legend of Johnston's emergence circulated Broadway as an oft-told oral legend. Like most Ziegfeld legends, the tale spoke of the recognition of an untried genius, plucking a talent out of obscurity and enabling the it to shine in full glory before the public. Sometime in 1917, Ziegfeld determined that Johnston would be the photographic glorifier of his Ziegfeld girls. From 1917 to 1931, Johnston would be Ziegfeld's favorite of the several camera artists who chronicled his shows and performers.

Of all the versions of the legend, the most elaborate is that recorded in an unpublished memoir, "I Never Wore Tights," of Johnston undertaken by his Connecticut neighbor Gordon Bell in 1935. Bell sought to use Johnston as a means of memorializing Ziegfeld's reign over American theatrical entertainment. Though its title announced that it would cover the period 1917 to 1934, the surviving typescript treats only the first five years of the announced span of coverage--roughly from "Miss 1917" to the triumph of "Sally."

Bell interviewed Johnston, and periodically in the manuscript Cheney's voice surfaces in the narration. How much of the tale is true? It is difficult to say. But this much should be noted. For four years prior to Johnston's "discovery" by Ziegfeld he was listed in the New York City Directory as a photographer. (Earlier he was listed as a painter or artist.) In the Bell narrative the dancer Dorothy Dickson (spelled Dixon in the ms) serves as the intermediary, introducing Johnston to Ziegfeld. Some photographs that Johnston had taken of Dickson suggested his unique aesthetic approach. How was it that an art student/amateur photographer was photographing a headlining show dancer? My suspicion is that Johnston worked as an uncredited operator at one of the New York studios from 1914 to 1917 (Johnston's friend and fellow Ziegfeld photographer Edward Thayer Monroe worked in such a capacity for White Studio from 1915 to early 1919). The studio that took the most images of Dickson in 1916 was Sarony Studio. When one looks at the studio's work in the years prior to Johnston's emergence, one discovers several images posed with what now seem characteristic Johnston set-ups: Sybil Carmen in December 16 in a Midnight Frolic outfit; or Aimee Dalmores in the November issue.

In 2011 I purchased one of the two surviving typescripts of Bell's memoir. The narrative alternates between passages evoking the general world of the American theater and the story of Johnston's establishment as a photograph. Below I have excerpted portions of Chapter Two bearing on Johnston's establishment as a major camera artist. While the story of Johnston's employment by Ziegfeld in Chapter One intermixes the factual and the imaginative in equal measure, the tale of how Johnston set up his first studio in Chapter Two has the concreteness of report.


In 1917, when Cheney paid his first month's rent for a third floor studio, 57 West 57th Street was a three-story building. The roof would have been flat, had it not been punctuated, at regular intervals, with the glass and slate-shingled A-frames of artists' skylights. Outside, up and down Sixth Avenue, the "El" added its persistent clatter to the surface traffic din. However, because Cheney selected a studio which faced Fifty-Seventh Street, he was not only saved a great deal of the noise of the clattering "El" trains, but also the quite understandable curiosity which would undoubtedly have afflicted both trainmen and rides, had they been able to peer through his studio windows. All third-floor studios opened off a single long hallway. Beside the front stairway there was a small, casually attended elevator. It was often necessary for prospective passengers to invade the corner drugstore and persuade the pharmacist to abandon his prescriptions long enough to escort them upwards. Sometimes an impatient tenant would run the car to the third floor himself, leave it there; thus causing the pharmacist considerable additional anguish and stair-climbing. On the other hand, most of the third floor tenants were young. Two flights of stairs were not nearly so formidable a barrier as undoubtedly they would later become. One of the conveniences of this thriving artistic warren was a back stairway which lead directly down--not up--to 'The Alps,' a pleasantly unpretentious restaurant at the street level. 'The Alps' was not only a place where both tenants and models could enjoy each other, to an obligato of good food and drinks; it was not a coffee house dedicated to the thrashing out--but never the solution of--the earth-shattering problems of love, and sex, and religion and politics; but it was also a most convenient and obliging source of viands and potables which could be delivered directly to the third floor studio of anyone able to demonstrate sufficient solvency to pick up the tab. Thus this back staircase soon assumed the position of a two-way traffic artery between sustenance and art. "Actually, it was the people on the second floor who suffered most," Cheney records. In the first place, the "El" tracks were almost level their windows. Thus those who lived on the Sixth Avenue side had little privacy unless their windows were closed and shades drawn. The second floor had been made into, and rented as, apartments; not artists' apartments, but dwellings for respectable, home-loving people. People who not only worked for a living, but who seemed obsessed with the quaint notion that there was a proper hour for everything--including retiring for the night. Because the third-floor tenants neither believed in, nor practiced, such bourgeois virtues, there was usually a state of siege and civil war between the tenants of the two floors. The third-floor hallway was wood. To quiet the nerves of the proper apartment dwellers on the second floor, the thoughtful landlord had laid a carpet along the center of this third floor hall. However, on too many occasions, when a third floor tenant was feeling flush enough to organize a party in his studio--topped off with food and drinks from 'The Alps'--the festivities would be climaxed by what Cheney called a 'carpet parade.' Bursting irreverently from the studio where they had been feasting, and with all appropriate artistic dignity, the revelers would line up, single file, parade up and down the hallway, "one foot on the carpet, one foot on the floor." "It was Greenwich Village on Fifty-Seventh Street" Cheney explains. As standard equipment, each third-floor studio apartment was equipped with a bathroom. Cheney's first constructive move was, of course, to convert his bathroom into a darkroom. "There wasn't much furniture in the place, and I couldn't afford much more," he comments. "Fortunately there was one blank wall. I used that for my background. When I got around to it, I covered that wall with gold paper so that when I turned a mazda lamp on it, it glowed like a sunburst. Eventually I had a frame built, with black on one side and white on the other. It was on casters, so I could turn it round easily. I used the skylight as the main light for my pictures, with a single mazda light for fill." On his knees, because there was no other way, he dunked and re-dunked his glass plates in developer and fixing solutions in the bathtub, flushed the solutions down the drain; afterwards used the tub to wash chemicals from his negatives, then his prints. Outside, in his studio room, he worked for hours over his glass negatives at a retouching desk; while in the other studios along the hall, his fellow artists labored with pen and ink, brushes and modeling tops on Bristol board, drawing paper and clay. The interchange of ideas between them all was free, uninhibited, sometimes verbally violent. On the roof, above Cheney's head, the pupils of a dancing school practiced their routines between the skylights. "To me, it was one of the great attractions of the place," Cheney explains. "All of my platinum prints had to be made up there on the roof, by daylight. Platinum paper is so darn slow, you have to expose it to daylight. Even an arc light isn't strong enough to give you a good print without waiting forever. So I'd load up an armful of printing frames, lug them up onto the roof, prop them against the skylights, sit down and enjoy the dancing while I waited for the prints to be exposed." "I learned a lot about ballet that first year. Not only did I make my proofs up there, but after Ziegfeld and I had selected the shots we wanted final prints of, I would drag the printing frames back onto that roof, expose the final prints there." In order to "set" these final platinum prints, Cheney transferred his hot oxalic acid operations from mother's kitchen in Mount Vernon on to a gas plate in his new studio. He does not record what his fellow tenants thought of the hot oxalic acid fumes. Although he does admit that the ventilation on 57th Street was better than it had been in his mother's kitchen. When he first became a tenant on 57th Street, Cheney's resources were sufficient "to pay a couple of months' rent and buy himself a new camera. With a determination to see an important job well done, he concluded he must have a good camera. After all, he had suddenly been commissioned to put his ideas of artistic photographs to the test. And so he journeyed downtown to Willoughby's Supply Store, a photographic house which was then "somewhere around Wannamaker's Department Store," where Grover Whalen was still displaying his charm. . . . . Cheney has never been quite sure whether, when he enter Willoughby's that day, they "saw a sucker coming"; or whether his self-confident attitude was responsible for the photographic outfit he finally purchased. Certainly he bought a 'real camera.' It was large; it was impressive. It accommodated 11x14 inch glass plates. Eventually 5x7 inch "reducing back" allowed him to make negatives of this latter small size. He began with glass plates and continued to be convinced that, for really fine work, glass plates were distinctly superior; also that they should be large enough to make retouching easy and allow the production of salon, or display, prints without using an enlarging camera. . . . . Professional cameras have never been sold "complete with lens." It has always been a matter of choice, discretion and pocketbook as to what lens the photographer will select. Cheney chose a 2 inch Steinheil; a lens which has remained with him, as has the camera, throughout the years. "I've never forgotten the man who sold me this outfit," Cheney says "His name was Joe Dombroff. He was a slight, little fellow. As I remember it, the camera was bigger than he was. Afterwards, he became president of Willoughby's. I don't think I could have given him that much business, but I might have." "Anyhow, I got the camera, and some plate holders, and the lens, and some trays delivered to my studio, and I was in business." . . . . "From the start, my agreement with Ziegfeld allowed me to photograph the girls any way I pleased," Cheney insists, with a pleasant gleam in his brown eyes. "I was never concerned with the regular on-stage publicity shots. Those were taken by the usual theatrical photographers like White or Underwood and Underwood. My assignment was to make artistic photographs of the girls--without any relation as to how they might appear onstage. These photographs were to be used for display in the lobbies of the New Amsterdam and Century Theatres--as well as being broadcast all over the civilized world." "I was the only person ever to make photographs of this sort for Ziegfeld. And my name was to appear on every one of them, and on all the reproductions in newspapers and magazines, too." "At first Ziegfeld suggested what girls were to be photographed. I would get a telephone call from his office, teeling me that a certain girl was coming over to my studio to be photographed. From that point on, I was on my own. I was from to plan the poses, selected the costumes--if any; use my own ideas of lighting. Everything." "Later, once he was more than satisfied with what I was doing, Ziegfeld even left the selection of the girls up to me. He was a wonderful man to work with. He never believed in interfering with somebody who was doing a job for him the way he liked to have it done. For instance, I had arranged to photograph one famous young lady. She had agreed to the appointment. I believe in being prompt. In fact, I've always insisted on it. My feeling is that the other person's time is probably just as important to them as mine is to me." "Well, the young lady didn't keep that appointment. She called me up a day or so later and said she was sorry, but that she hadn't been able to keep that appointment. Something had come up--and when could she have another appointment? I told her she had had her appointment and hadn't kept it, that so far as I was concerned, I hadn't the time to make another appointment for her." "She threatened to go to Ziegfeld. That didn't bother me in the least. She waited until I was over at the New Amsterdam with Ziegfeld, then complained I'd refused to take her picture. Ziegfeld looked at her, looked at me, and said, 'Cheney's in charge of making his own photographs. Whatever he says, goes.' I never did photograph that young lady--until the following season." Cheney had come from six years as an art student--with the firm conviction that a woman's body was beautiful. "In 1917, women didn't display their bodies--except on stage," he recalls. "It just wasn't fashionable. On the other hand, you were just wasting time and plates if you tried to make interesting or artistic photographs of them in those horribly over-decorated gunny-sacks they wore as clothes. One of Ziegfeld's requirements was that a girl must have a beautiful figure. From the first day I went to work for him, I determined I was not going to hide those figures. I didn't. Instead, I draped them. Revealingly, of course. If I hadn't draped them that way, I might just as well have photographed them in their hideous street clothes." "But, you know, there is such a thing as taste. I've never been interested in making lewd photographs. On the other hand, I've always believed that if a woman had a beautiful body, it should be shown. That's why I've always used the simplest of drapes. Effectively, tastefully, of course; but never as an excuse for lewdness nor for covering up a beautiful figure."