Johnston’s father was a distinguished banker who had connections to New York City’s upper class. Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl” was a family friend who encouraged the young Alfred in his art.
In 1903, at the age of 18, Alfred enrolled at The Art Students League of New York. In 1904 he transferred to the National Academy of Design in New York City then located on 109th Street. There he studied to be an illustrator. The required drawing and painting classes from the nude model which were a part of the Academy’s rigorous training program would prove to have a significant influence on his later photography. Norman Rockwell who would go on to gain fame as an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post attended the Academy around the same time period. They became life long friends.Charles Dana Gibson continued to mentor the young Johnston. “I was his protégé’.” Johnston later recounted. It was Gibson who initially advised Alfred to begin working in photography and to capitalize on it’s new potential as an illustration tool. Cheney (as his friends called him) probably gleaned some of his business acumen from Gibson as well, such as using his middle name to promote himself as Gibson had done.
Alfred Cheney Johnston 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.
Johnston graduated from the Academy in 1908 and married fellow classmate Doris Gernon in 1909. For the next seven years Cheney continued to experiment with his photography while Doris, an accomplished painter was known to do the artistic darkroom retouch work on Cheney’s glass plates and prints.
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.
Ziegfeld promoted his shows as “Glorifying the American Girl” and it was Johnston’s job to capture Ziegfeld’s vision on film. 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.
In 1939 Cheney and Doris decided to leave NYC and bought a 15 acre rural property in Oxford, Connecticut. The reasons for the move are unclear but they may include the fact that his photographic style had fallen out of fashion and WWII was approaching bringing with it uncertainty and the rising cost of living in NYC. He and Doris converted the barn on their property into studio space for her painting and his photography.
There is little record of the photographs that Cheney took from his years in Connecticut. In 1937, just prior to moving to Connecticut, he partnered with Swann Publications of NYC and published a spiral bound art book entitled Enchanting Beauty. Although praised by critics, fellow artists and friends, the book’s success appears limited.
After the war Cheney attempted to begin again in 1949 by opening a photography studio in New Haven, CT and later by opening another studio in Seymour, a small town close to Oxford, but both studios were short lived.
He joined the Hartford County Camera Club as well as the Connecticut branch of the PPANE, the New England regional group connected to the PPA, the Professional Photographers of America. He gave a few lectures and demonstrations at the yearly conventions of these organizations and also taught photography to small groups at his studio in Connecticut.
In the 1960’s while in his late 70’s Cheney attempted to donate his entire studio and his photographic work to various organizations in NYC and Washington DC but no one was interested or able to store it.
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.