Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
How to describe the the erotic photos shot by Alfred Cheney Johnston during the second and third decades of the twentieth century? It seems to me they intentionally dodge easy categorization. Cheney plays with classical ideas of poise and lyricism. Using a modern mode, he invokes the prerogatives of poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, and theater. The invocation is sincere but not wholly earnest; he often seems to be asking us to see the impetuous urban girl below the pose, the histrionics. And in his peculiarly fragrant way he celebrates that impetuosity. This may be most apparent in the shots in which his subjects stare directly at the camera. These have the effect of perforating the screen of fantasy — of asserting the specificity of personality. They remind me of the moments when Anna Karina breaks the fourth wall in her performances for Jean-Luc Godard.
In many ways Cheney is a thoroughly Beaux-Arts character. Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have understood him perfectly. And yet, like another late Victorian, D.W. Griffith, his place as a pioneer requires that we compare him with those who followed in his wake — with Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and that girl on Reddit who shares nude selfies for no reason but the joy that she derives from it.
This vantage displays Cheney in a light that is perhaps unfair, because it forces us to reckon with the antique quality of his brand of artiness. Yet it’s flattering in that it highlights the foundational qualities of his take on American femininity. Cheney was the house photographer for Flo Ziegfeld’s famous “Follies,” a forum that preceded the movies as an engine of female sexual entitlement (what our enemies would describe as “rape culture”). Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the phenomenon of the flapper absent the influence of Ziegfeld’s showmanship, which celebrated the showgirl as the embodiment of youth, freedom, glamor, and modernity. Before she ever titillated a movie audience, Louise Brooks appeared in the “Follies,” and shed her clothes for Alfred Cheney Johnston.
Nudity below the jump. Have a great weekend.