Alfred Cheney Johnston and the Ziegfeld Hula Hoop Nudes Mystery

Ziegfeld Follies Studio Girl[Hooping.org columnist Lara Eastburn digs into a hooping mystery.]

by Lara Eastburn

Photographs of vintage nudes posing with hula hoops have been cropping up on hoopers’ online radars of late. These are striking images of a past era and its idealized beauty that have captured the imaginations of today’s hoopers and inevitably prompted questions about their origin. Who were these beauties? And why, pray tell, are they holding hula hoops? My own research into these photos yielded more questions than answers, but here’s what we know.

The subjects of these 1920s-era nudes are none other than the Ziegfeld Girls, stars of the elaborate Ziegfeld Follies theatrical productions that appeared on Broadway from 1907 to 1931. The Ziegfeld showgirls were touted by creator Florenz Ziegfeld to be the most beautiful girls in America. To this promotional end, Ziegfeld hired photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston around 1917. For 15 years, until the musical and vaudeville revue’s demise after the stock market crash that prompted the Great Depression of the 1930s, Johnston was tasked with creating images for the Follies‘ advertisements and theater lobby posters. In the official work for which Johnston was hired, of course, propriety dictated that not more than an exposed thigh could be shown. So the “nudes” for which he is known today would have had few commercial applications. They are instead part of a different, more obscure tale shrouded in mystery.

[Hooping.org Parental Warning: Vintage Nudes Ahead]

Were Johnston’s nude portraits part of his own artistic aesthetic? Were they commissioned for his employer’s personal enjoyment? And what about those hula hoops? Vaudeville shows of the time often included “hoop rolling” and “hoop juggling” with large and small metal rings, but these acts are known to have been largely performed by men. In the video above of 1929 footage from the Ziegfeld show “Glorifying the American Girl”, we spot a showgirl holding, but not moving with, a large hoop decorated with tinsel. Perhaps meant to represent the moon in this “tableau vivant”, photo-historian Jeff Dunas suggests that “[t]he oversized “bubble,” a symbol of transient beauty ubiquitous in pictorialism, connects Johnston’s work more closely to turn-of-the-century art photography.” As a universal symbol of beauty of the time, in other words, perhaps the large metal hoops in Johnston’s work were meant to evoke the sun, moon, or planets – a “heavenly body”, as it were. And though I cannot find any evidence of hula hoops used in the Follies’ choreographed and feminine dance acts, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. A more likely explanation for the presence of hula hoops in some of Johnston’s nudes, however, is his penchant for props. Known as “Mr. Drape”, Johnston almost always rejected the clothing his subjects wore to their photo shoots, choosing instead to cover his models – and pose them – with whatever was handy. Silks, pearls, laces, velvets – and perhaps the metal circles used in the show’s acts? – became objects of what became known as Johnston’s “signature props”.

Paulette Goddard
Paulette Goddard: According to Jeff Dunas, "All of Ziegfeld's proteges saw performing in the Follies as preparation either for marriage to a millionaire or for Hollywood stardom, and more than a few of them achieved those goals." Goddard made her Ziegfeld stage debut in 1926 and married lumber typcoon Edgar James in 1927, divorcing and marrying famous actor Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Goddard was a major star of the Paramount Studio in the 1940s and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "So Proudly We Hail!" in 1943.

In a rare 1928 interview with Violet Dare in the Wheeler Syndicate, Alfred Johnston explained that his photography attempted to communicate the personalities of his subjects through the objects and atmosphere with which he filled his frames. “In my photographs I try to create the proper environment [for an individual’s personality], just as we try to create it for ourselves in real life.” In the same article, Johnston offers a hint at another purpose for his nude photography – one that suggests they may not have been created exclusively for the male gaze. “That’s why photographs so often are disappointing–they show just what the eye sees.” Johnston told Dare while still discussing his use of backgrounds and props, “But take a photograph that has a definite atmosphere, that brings out a girl’s elfin loveliness, her daintiness, her quiet, sweet charm, her spirit of gay camaraderie, and you’ve got a photograph that is going to mean something to her and her friends.”

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks: Debuting in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925, as a result of her work she came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger who signed her. She became noted for popularizing the bobbed haircut and for her films Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe) (1930).
Olive Brady
Olive Brady:
Lora Foster
Lora Foster
Virginia Biddle
Virginia Biddle
Ziegfeld Follies Nudes with Hula Hoops
More Ziegfeld Follies Girls With Hula Hoops
Katherine Burke
Katherine Burke

Johnston’s work was wildly popular in its day. Though probably exaggerated, he is oft reported to have been charging $1,200 a sitting by the end of the 1920s. Whether this is true or not, his illustrious commercial career met its end with the bankruptcy of the Ziegfeld Follies. By 1940, he was forced to relocate from his Manhattan studio to rural Connecticut, where he is purported to have continued shooting “nudes” in his barn. Of particular interest to photo-buffs, perhaps, Johnston preferred the archaic and massive 11×14 inch land-format camera throughout his life and fiercely objected to the use of artificial light in his studio. In the 1960’s, Johnston made several attempts to donate his photographs (to the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art, among others) that were met with little interest. And it was not until after his death in 1971 that his images displaying full nudity were discovered in a box on his estate labeled “Private”. The Library of Congress mounted a memorial exhibition of Johnston’s work in 1973, but his modern fans credit the Internet with the current interest in Johnston’s voluptuous and fantasy-filled portraits of the Ziegfeld Girls. I’d like to think we hoopers have had some small part in that.

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Lara Eastburn Lara Eastburn has been dancing in meadows and singing with the moon while spinning in circles for eons at Superhooper.org. Beyond commenting here, you can also discuss this and other topics related to the Hooposophy for living in Hooping.org’s Hooposophy Group and Forum. Lara is also the planting and gardening force behind discovering our hooping community roots at The Hooping Family Tree Project.

9 thoughts on “Alfred Cheney Johnston and the Ziegfeld Hula Hoop Nudes Mystery

  1. I love these pictures, I’ve been curious about them for years now. Thanks for a lovely article! Virginia Biddle has always been my favorite!

    1. Ahh, interesting. When I was gathering photos for this piece one source had several Ziegfeld nudes of Louise Brooks and this hula hoop shot wasn’t one of them. It said that any other nudes of Louise weren’t actually her, but given that this shot of Louise is so well known I wasn’t so sure when numerous other sources said otherwise. So this is pretty cool. Not only do we now know for sure now the Louise Brooks photo isn’t authentic, but we know exactly where it came from.

  2. You’re not crazy Aurora – I was just about to post the same comment, because Louise Brooks’ head obviously is not in scale with the body. Then I started comparing hers with Paulette Goddard – They just cut off her head. Freaky! But in those days, they were all powerful. They probably thought – and perhaps were right then – that no one would ever notice.

    1. @ohmywhatfun ‘In those days, they were all powerful’??? Who are ‘they’? What are you talking about? Do you have any reason to suppose that this was done ‘in those days’ rather than recently? Why think the fake was done by some murky power-holders rather than by some lonely computer-owner who wished he had more nude pictures of Louise Brooks? What purpose would your mystery elite have for doing it?

      Faked photographs have become a huge issue for picture collectors only after Photoshop and copycat programs were released starting in 1990. Before that, far fewer people ever tried to make them. Now, there are many internet sites devoted to ‘celebrity fakes.’ Dubious pictures of celebs before 1990 were usually cases of someone finding a racy photo or film of a person who looked something like the celeb and claiming it was Roddy McDowell, Marilyn Monroe, Streisand, etc.

      The fake here is terrible. It is obviously far worse than any fake made by a great photographer like Alfred Cheney Johnston would have been, if he had ever stooped to that, which we have no evidence for thinking that he did.

      This kind of head-swap fakery is routinely done *these days* by jerks with Photoshop. There is no reason to think that this fake isn’t very recent; since it looks just like a photoshopped fake, there is good reason to think it is from the past 25 years.

  3. Rather than idly speculating that Ziegfeld or Johnston would spend a great deal of time and / or money on nude photos of the women of the Ziegfeld Follies for personal ‘use,’ you could have consulted relevant books and found that they were taken for publication in photography, art, ‘beauty culture’ (etc.) magazines and in photography collections in book form. Artistic figure photography such as A. C. Johnston (like C. S. Bull, Arnold Genthe, and others) was doing here was popular in the 1920s among art lovers who weren’t nasty-minded prudes and (no doubt) also among men and women who found them erotic, though there was certainly plenty of far more frankly sexual photography available.

    Anyway, the model was paid and the photographer sold his work. In cases where the model was identified in captions, the pictures served to advertise her beauty and photogenic qualities to other potential employers and to potential patrons of Ziegfeld Follies shows. This wasn’t unique to ‘Ziegfeld Girls’ either. Dancers and chorines from other revues and from Broadway shows, artists’ (including photographers’) models, and aspiring actresses could all be found among those posing.

    The idea that a healthy human body is something beautiful and is a suitable subject for the arts was quite widely held among people in the arts in the 1920s (as by many today). Pioneers in modern dance (Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan) posed similarly. Artfully posed nudes and semi-nudes even appeared occasionally in popular magazines (such as *Life*) and art supplements to more sophisticated newspapers.

    Anyway, the idea of Ziegfeld or Johnston commissioning or taking these for purely personal, prurient purposes is one that would only seem required to someone who has not troubled to look into their context at all.

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