With Mitt Romney, The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and the familiar sight of wholesome young men with name tags knocking politely on front doors, the Latter-day Saints have come to stand as icons of clean-scrubbed conservatism, holdovers from the Leave It to Beaver era in a world marked by conflict and change. This wasn’t always the case. As University of Tennessee art-history professor Mary Campbell discusses in her new book, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image (just published by the University of Chicago Press), 19th-century Americans viewed the Church of Latter-day Saints with a mixture of disgust, hatred, and prurient sexual curiosity. Between 1830 and 1914, the larger nation questioned whether the Mormons were even American at all.
Focusing on the work of the little-known LDS photographer Charles Ellis Johnson, Campbell’s book examines the remarkable aesthetic, legal, and religious strategies the Mormons used to recast themselves as model American citizens.
I heard a rumor that you grew up in a polygamous cult and that’s why you wrote Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image. Is that true?
[Laughing] Absolutely not! I’m not even LDS. I do, however, have extended Mormon family, including a polygamous great-grandfather about five generations back who spent time in the Utah territorial penitentiary for polygamy.
Charles Ellis Johnson isn’t exactly a big-name artist. How did you discover him and his work?
I knew that I wanted to write about an early Mormon photographer, so I started going through this list I had found of 19th-century artists who had photographed the LDS temple in Salt Lake City. When I got to Johnson, I noticed that Utah State University held a good chunk of his work, and I called to set up a visit. The curator of photography, a wonderful man named Dan Davis, answered the phone. I remember him saying something like, “You know, Johnson also shot erotica. Do you want to look at that, too, or just the temple pictures?” To my way of thinking, there’s only one answer to that question.
“Interdisciplinary” is a popular catchphrase with universities right now, but you don’t actually find that many scholars with extensive training in multiple disciplines, much less art history professors who are also members of the New York bar. Did your background as a lawyer contribute to your understanding of Johnson as an artist?
Deeply. One of the overarching arguments I make in the book is that the LDS church used images, including Johnson’s, to knit itself and its members back into the nation after the scandal of polygamy. More than that, I argue that the church turned to images to achieve a type of national reconciliation that more overtly political and legal strategies just couldn’t produce. In that respect, I needed both the art-historical training and the legal background to really dig into the world that surrounded Johnson’s photographs and stereoviews. …
So it didn’t feel forced to bring art history and legal studies together in the book?
Not at all. To the contrary, it felt like the material called for it. Reading the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in the Mormon polygamy cases, for example, I realized just how deeply the question of visual representation affected the Court’s legal reasoning, just how profoundly aesthetic issues shaped the Court’s construction of the Mormons’ legal rights. In the 1885 decision Cannon v. United States, for example, the Court held that the country’s anti-polygamy statutes didn’t just criminalize the act of marrying multiple women. Instead, the Court declared that these laws sought “to prevent a man from flaunting in the face of the world the ostentation and opportunities of a bigamous household.” Here you see the Supreme Court defining LDS polygamy as a crime of appearance as much as a crime of domestic relations or sex. According to the Court, if a Mormon defendant looked like a polygamist—if he held himself out to the world as a polygamist—that was enough for a jury to convict him. It didn’t matter what he happened to be doing in the bedroom or around the dining-room table. It was all about how he looked, all about public image.
And that legal attention to image affected the LDS church at the turn of the century?
Yes. The polygamy scandal effectively forced the Mormons to hypermanage their public face more than a century before social media made that a daily imperative for so many of the rest of us. And I don’t think the church abandoned this habit once it convinced the nation that the Latter-day Saints didn’t all have devil horns and harems. Growing up, I noticed that a lot of Mormons—and especially Mormon families—placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on looking right—on having the big framed family portrait in the foyer, on having the kid’s sheet music on prominent display by the piano. About a year ago I realized that a bunch of the most popular mom blogs—
You know, blogs by young, hip moms who manage to bake gluten-free cookies and slip into skinny jeans and keep their white couch pristine even though they have multiple children under 6. About a year ago, a friend of mine asked me why so many of these blogs belonged to Mormon women. And I got really excited because I think that they’re a 21st-century echo of Charles Ellis Johnson’s work, a 21st-century version of the Mormon Church’s efforts to restyle its members as thoroughly American by selling them to the nation as beautiful images. It’s as though the turn-of-the-century church’s attention to appearance has seeped into the core of the faith to the point where the Latter-day Saints can’t not do a fantastic job of flaunting their hyperphotogenic selves in the face of the world.
You spend a fair amount of time discussing the various things that Johnson’s photographs don’t show—or even, in your words, the things that his images refuse to show. Does this suggest that photographs don’t always hand over an accurate view of the world?
You’ve actually just hit on one of the key methodological tenets of art history—and, as odd as this might seem, one of the ways in which art and the law have so much in common. People tend to assume that images—and especially highly illusionistic, figurative, non-abstract images like so many photographs—are just Xerox copies of the world. Decorative Xerox copies. The longer you look, however, the more you see that images often present their viewers with arguments rather than straight reflections—visual arguments about how the world was, how it should be, what a particular society hoped for, feared, couldn’t cop to. In this respect, images—and I’m consciously distinguishing between an image and its maker here—are like really phenomenal trial lawyers. They try to slide all sorts of arguments past you as straight facts when, in fact, they’re spinning stories.
I understand how a portrait of the prophet looking genteel in a tuxedo or an artful photograph of the angel sculpture that sits on the top of the Salt Lake City Temple might work to restyle the Mormons as a cultivated American people in the public eye. But erotic stereoviews? Really?
Really! This was one of the most surprising discoveries for me, the realization that Johnson’s suggestive work bears a strong resemblance to turn-of-the-century pictures of vaudeville girls—vaudeville girls who performed in shows that traveled across the country, vaudeville girls who appeared in newspaper articles across the country, vaudeville girls who, in this way, became one of the first national commodities. One of the first products that Americans consumed on a national, rather than a purely regional level. And a product that, for all of its claims to provide family-friendly, middle-class entertainment, generally trucked in the pleasure to be had in watching a pretty young woman high-kicking her way across the stage in, essentially, her underwear.
When Johnson started shooting images that adopted and intensified this sort of vaudevillian sexuality, then—and particularly when he explicitly labeled these images “Utah,” stamping “Utah View” or “Views of Utah a Speciality” on the back—he effectively associated his home state with a type of mainstream American sexuality. I’m not saying that Johnson’s blue oeuvre clients approached his work in this spirit. I doubt that the men—and maybe even women—who saw his erotic work in Eastern penny arcades took a look and then declared, “Hey, Earl! Did you see that? Those Utah Mormon women look just like [the vaudeville celebrity] Evelyn Nesbit! Who knew? The Mormons—they’re just like us in the bedroom.” That said, the work itself makes that argument. This argument for the Latter-day Saints and their thoroughly average American sexuality. And in this respect, these Johnson pictures function a lot like his photographs of the prophet and the temple.
Author photo by Rob Heller
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