Alfred Cheney Johnston was born on April 8, 1885 in New York to a wealthy family who had connections with New York’s upper class. In 1903, Johnston attended The Art Students League of New York but transferred to the National Academy of Design in New York in 1904 where he studied illustration and experimented with photography. While there, he met fellow student Norman Rockwell with whom he became lifelong friends.
In 1908, Johnston graduated from the Academy and married classmate and painter Doris Gernon in 1909. With the encouragement of family friend Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the “Gibson Girl”), Johnston continued to develop his photographic skills. His wife Doris was known to complete the darkroom retouch work on his prints and glass plates.
Johnston was invited to become official photographer of the Ziegfeld Follies by its founder Florenz Ziegfeld around 1916. Ziegfeld promoted his productions as “Glorifying the American Girl” and it was Johnston’s job to capture that vision in photographs. His photos were considered sexual at the time and his props included tapestry backgrounds, pearls, and shawls and scarves for draping.
Through his relationship with Ziegfeld, Johnston also became known for his portraits of silent film stars, the upper class society, advertising work, layouts for industrial firms and cigarette companies.
Johnston’s photographs became famous around the world and he had a very successful career with the Follies until the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent death of Ziegfeld in 1932.
In 1937, Johnston, with Swann Publications, published his book of artistic nude photographs entitled “Enchanting Beauty” which had only limited success. Johnston continued to work in New York until 1939 when he and his wife moved to a rural property in Oxford, Connecticut where they converted their barn into a studio space. There are few records of Johnston’s photographic work in Connecticut though he is known to have belonged to photographic clubs and associations where he gave numerous lectures. Johnston also taught photography from his studio during this time.
In the 1960’s, Johnston attempted to donate his studio and photographic works to several organizations in New York and Washington but received little interest in the proposal. Johnston died in 1971 at Griffin Hospital in Ansonia, Connecticut. In 2006, the book “Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston” by Robert Hudovernik was published. Today, Johnston is considered a top photographer of his time, among the ranks of Edward Steichen, Horst, Arnold Genthe, and others.
Sources: Alfred Cheney Johnston.com