Alfred Cheney Johnston was born in New York City on April 8, 1885.
He started experimenting with photography by taking portraits of friends and fellow students attending his art classes. At this time artists who could paint portraits in oil were making a good living, particularly European artists. It’s likely that Johnston’s astute mentor also advised him that there was a good living to be made specializing in photographic portraiture. Alfred applied the knowledge and principles he’d absorbed from his painting classes to his portrait photography. Johnston’s photographs were indeed very painterly and throughout his life many would compare his photographic technique to that of fine art painting.
Around 1916 Alfred Cheney Johnston’s photography was brought to the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld, founder of the Ziegfeld Follies. After seeing examples of his portrait photography, Ziegfeld invited the young Johnston to become official photographer for the Follies. Cheney had one stipulation to accepting Ziegfeld’s offer. He required that his name be included as a byline below every one of his photographs. Again it’s quite possible that Charles Dana Gibson advised him on this. It proved to be an excellent business move because Johnston’s byline brought him other commercial work for film companies and advertising agencies.
Johnston’s portraits of Ziegfeld’s girls became world famous. Just as his mentor Charles Dana Gibson created the “Gibson Girl”, Johnston went on to create the “Ziegfeld Girl” which became the next standard of beauty for a new generation of Americans.
Cheney Johnston had a very lucrative career with the Follies until the stock market crash of 1929. The Follies was hit hard. Ziegfeld lost all of his money and later died in 1932 as a result of the strain. Johnston continued to work commercially in NYC. However, with the loss of the Follies account it seemed as though Johnston had lost his identity.
Alfred Cheney Johnston died in 1971, three years after the death of his wife. He died alone survived only by his cat and the remains of thousands of portraits from a faded era which had made him famous. The world of the 1970’s with the Viet Nam War, rock music and fine art photography had a lock on the attention of the NYC art world and Cheney’s passing went largely unnoticed.