By Erin Fae
“Women were never more beautiful,” my friend said as she handed me my birthday present: a copy of Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston by Robert Hudovernik. As I flipped through the pages, I knew she was right. Jazz Age Beauties is a rich and sensual delight.
From 1907 to 1931, the girls of Florenz Ziegfeld’s lush revue, The Ziegfeld Follies, defined the beauty of an era. Perhaps no one captured their seductive allure better than Alfred Cheney Johnston. Early on, Johnston was hired as the official photographer of the Follies. The book offers a brief history of the Ziegfeld era and of Johnston. I found it interesting to discover that Ziegfeld also showcased the girls on the rooftop of the Follies theater in Midnight Frolic, a more salacious show that was “synonymous with Jazz Age sexuality and sensuality.” The author also critiques Ziegfeld for his narrow idea of beauty: very white and very pale. More “exotic” women of the era (just think of the multi-talented Josephine Baker, for instance) were excluded from his stages.
Prohibition, F. Scott Fitzgerald, controversy around sexuality; it’s an engaging read, but the text stands in the background. This is, first and foremost, a photo book, and a glorious one at that.
The first Gallery of photos is The Stars: the women who so many flocked to see night after night. Here, nearly nude women are draped with lace, feathers or sheer embellished scarves. Some cling pearls to their nipples or fan themselves innocently, giving a come-hither look over a soft shoulder… but rarely at the camera. A perfect pout, a knowing look. It’s a gaze directed at someone off-scene. The second Gallery is The Secret Nudes. There is something especially striking about these unknown women who found new freedoms, including the right to vote, during this time. Some liberated and some reserved, these photos are perhaps the sexiest in the book. Many of these women were probably not models, but just everyday girls exploring the opportunity to pose nude for a clandestine spotlight and a photographic master.
Jazz Age Beauties will transport you to another time. Put an old record on, pour yourself some bathtub gin, and get lost in the world of the Ziegfeld Girl.