Shoppe Talk ~ Vintage Boudoir Inspiration

August 23, 2010

Hi, Shoppe fans! It’s me, Mariann, back with some impeccable portraits to share by Alfred Cheney Johnston. Johnston is a great photographer to look at for inspiration for boudoir photography. He was so prolific in portraiture in the 1920s, that we’ll be looking at his work all week long! I know that some of you who have tried your hand at boudoir photography may have found it a little difficult or intimidating. It’s hard enough to capture people and make them look better than life without having to portray them in an intimate setting. You might be working with someone with a little more sexual charge than you were expecting, or with someone who just can’t seem to get comfortable in front of the camera. Whatever the case may be, you are sure to find some practical approaches to your budoir portraiture by looking at Johnston’s extensive body of work. The majority of Johnston’s sitters were Zigfield Girls—a cast of women who were among the new breed of American stars to command the terms bombshell and it-girl. They performed in a world-class stage show produced in Chicago called “Midnight Frolic.” The show’s producer and promoter, Florenz Zigfield, had hired Johnston as part of a grand plan to make celebrities out of each of his Girls. Therefore, Johnston’s photographs had to portray them as the ideal, or with a larger-than-life air. To that end, he would utilize everything from the women’s costumes, to hair styling, to props to make incredible portraits. In this first selection of photographs, we will focus on Johnston’s use of props. Johnston often had his sitters hold props to help create exaggerated gestures that had a natural elegance and allure. 1-ACJ-Newton In this portrait of Flo Newton, she holds a large glass sphere. The materiality of the glass, in conjunction with the depth of field, infuses the image with mystery. It causes viewers to grant the subject a sense of power in her wielding of the sphere. The circular shape is also echoed behind Newton’s head, adding to the implied power of the woman. The whole scene is set off by the tight cropping, with the edges of the sphere and the “halo” just a hair away from the edge of the frame—which is usually a compositional no-no, but gives the image a charge of drama. Here is an image of one of my favorite jazz-age singers, Ruth Etting. She holds a very large painter’s palette, which counter-balances the visual weight of her body. 2-ACJ-Etting It gives her something tangible to look at, and it has a substantial scale for her body to interact with. While it might be similar in size, with its simplified curves and dark value, the palette lets Etting’s form take center stage. It also provides a visual anchor for the extension of Etting’s arm and gives the her legs a feeling of weightlessness. In this portrait of Ziegfield Girl Virginia Biddle, she holds a large hoop. It creates a playful frame around her body, and gives her a structure to raise her arms around. 3-ACJ-Biddle As in the first portrait, the subject’s gesture commands authority. The interesting combination of upwardly resting arms, crossed legs, perfect posture, and profile presentation elegantly portays that Biddle has a sense of control in this image. Are you impressed yet? Stay tuned for the next installment of Alfred Cheney Johnston’s amazing portraiture!

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