[Hooping.org columnist Lara Eastburn digs into a hooping mystery.]
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”.
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.”
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.
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.