“Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image”—An Interview with Mary Campbell

Mary Cambell Charles Ellison
Charles Ellis Johnson was one of the Mormon Church's more popular temple photographers in the 19th century. He was also a peddler of erotica.

9780226373690Mormonism and erotica aren’t usually two things that go together, but for Charles Ellis Johnson these identities were concurrent realities in the tapestry of his life. Born in 1857 to the third wife in a Mormon family, Johnson arrived in Utah at three years old. His family settled in the southern part of the state where he grew up and later married one of Brigham Young’s daughters.

He was often on the lookout for ways to make money to provide for his large family as they were mostly dependent on him after his father’s death. Always a man interested in new technology, photography was a natural fit at the time. He became the semiofficial photographer for the LDS Church, capturing pictures of prophets from Wilford Woodruff to Joseph F. Smith, their wives and families, temple sites, and Church events.

However, one of his many side gigs was pedaling erotic images (most commonly stereoviews) of women to the rest of the nation. It seems he was a man of contradictions, but it was his diverse portfolio that drew Mary Campbell, author and art history professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to him. Professionally, Campbell’s background is in law before studying and teaching art history, but it is through this artistic lens that she approaches Johnson’s late turn of the century photographical works. Her book suggests that Johnson’s photography assisted in assimilating the Mormon community into the American culture.

This Week in Mormons: If you are not LDS, what were your motivations behind wanting to write about a Mormon photographer?

Mary Campbell: I guess there are a couple of answers to that. I’m not LDS, but I do have LDS family. So there’s always been that connection. Growing up as non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, especially in the school system there, most people were LDS. It was definitely a part of my early life. And then I went to law school and wrote an article for the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism. I was always surprised by the legal response to 19th century polygamy. I couldn’t quite get my head around why people threw such a fit about it. Especially as the country was ramping up for the Civil War, there were these southern congressmen talking about how the country needed federal intervention. I could never really figure out what was going on. I wrote about it from a legal perspective, and that gave me the kind of grounding to write about it from an art historical perspective.

There is this growing interest in Mormonism – to take Mormonism seriously as this fundamental part of American history. So I could kind of see that coming, I’d written about the Mormons—I’m an Americanist—so I decided I wanted to write about a Mormon artist and a photographer because that’s the medium I know something about.

TWiM: How did you find Johnson’s story?

MC: I got this list of temple photographers and I was trying to find somebody interesting. I got to Johnson and called Utah State because I saw that they held a bunch of his stuff. So I asked, “Can I come look at the pictures?” And this wonderful archivist Dan Davis, said, “You know he shot erotica too? Do you just want to see the temple photos or the erotica?” I said, “I want to see the erotica.” It was really good fortune that I found Johnson. I was a grad student thinking, oh great, I’m writing about Mormon porn this is so exciting. People will want to talk to me at conferences. But then the more I pushed at Johnson and the work, the more I realized that it’s not the overtly salacious elements of the story that are really exciting.

TWiM: I’m curious as to how we have this man coming from what Joseph Smith nicknamed the “royal family” (the Johnsons), to marrying one of Brigham Young’s daughters, to becoming this semiofficial Church photographer, to then shooting these erotic images and distributing them across the country. This is not the normal or expected trajectory. Do you know how he got there?

MC: No, and it kills me. I’ve spent so much time trying to track down the story of his erotic work. What I do know is that he was deeply involved with the theatre. He was a correspondent for the New York Dramatic Mirror, so he was going to all these shows.

A lot of the images he took look like vaudeville actresses. It’s softer core, much more self-consciously artistic than most erotica was at that time, which kind of blew me away. I had assumed that erotica would start out being tame and then get explicit. Turns out it starts out just graphic from the get go – would make Larry Flynt blush sort of graphic.

There is a lot of overlap between more mainstream pictures of young Broadway dancers with what Johnson was doing. His does get more extreme, but I think he’s picking up on these theatrical conventions. These vaudeville shows are supposed to be family entertainment, but it’s all about young ladies in leotards. There was this steady drum beat of female sexuality propelling it. I think Johnson saw that this was the sort of product that would sell. It was the most popular entertainment in America at the time. I think Johnson knew people were fascinated by Mormon sexuality that it would be easy to sell his work out of state because people at the time were like, let’s have a peak in the Mormon boudoir, and it wasn’t what they were expecting. There was this market looking for Mormon sexuality and he was able to service that need.

TWiM: Where do you think that fascination came from? Is that stemming from polygamy?

MC: It’s stemming directly from polygamy. Around this time, there were these very anti-polygamy sentimental novels, that spun these decadent violent fantasies about what was supposedly going on in polygamist homes. Sexual extravagance, cruelty, and wife killing that apparently these Mormon men were engaged in. Readers adored condemning this, but they were also fascinated by it. The Mormon bedroom was exotified as a harem scene. So there was this appetite for tales or images of Mormon sexual decadence.

TWiM: You also write that between 1847 to the end of WWI, much of the US saw the LDS community as un-American or even anti-American. How do you think this manifested during Johnson’s life and his career?

MC: I believe Mormons in general were aware of this. They had to be. In terms of things that were going on congressionally and in the court system, they were acutely aware of how the larger nation saw them – of how it condemned them. Also of the legal and cultural violence that the country visited on their church and on them. But after railroads came together, Salt Lake became a monster tourist destination. People were condemning it as un-American but wanting to take a peak none the less.

Johnson, coming from a polygamist family, marrying into Brigham Young’s family, he knows this. Plus he is shooting all of these official images for the Church. He’s exquisitely aware of the importance of Mormon image – of what the real concrete effects are of the stereotypes about the Church and about the Latter-day Saints that were circulating. He kind of played both ends of it.

TWiM: I think the larger argument that the book makes is that it was his photography that helped merge the Church back into American life and acceptance. How does he manage to accomplish that?

MC: He was part of it. This was a bigger trend, a transition that went on after the Church officially gave up polygamy in 1890. They realized that for the Church’s very survival – it’s temporal salvation as Woodruff puts it – that they were going to have to knit themselves back into the country. Johnson was just one in a series of maneuvers that were designed – I think very self-consciously – to change the ways in which the larger nation saw the Mormons. This brought the Church the tolerance it needed to survive. Also the argument of the book is that it refashioned what the Church is now and what it means to be a member of the Church.

TWiM: I’m curious about his motives because at one point he opens a tourist office downtown and seems to have a vision about selling the Mormon culture to the country or was this just a moment to capitalize on selling erotic images?

MC: I have no idea what went through that man’s head. That’s what I always teach my students. Even if you had his journals you’re not his therapist, even if you were his therapist, are you sure? Part of the journey is wondering what was this man up to? What was he doing?

His father died when Johnson was in his 20s, and he assumed the responsibilities of being the father figure of this enormous polygamous family. There were serious financial burdens that went along with that. He was always looking for ways to make money, looking for ways to employ his relatives, his brothers, his half-brothers. There was a real sense of financial urgency that ran through his life.

Johnson was also this free thinking, forward thinking guy. He liked new stuff, exciting technology. He was involved with the women’s movement to some extent. He had a cool little bicycle and a purple ribbon on his type writer. I think that some of these moves that he was making – especially with the erotica – made him new and current and relevant. He situated himself as this stylish guy who liked to have his finger on the pulse of whatever was cool, plus it helped him pay the bills.

TWiM: Johnson also made a bit of money off the postcard image of Brigham Young and his many wives. Did that hinder his efforts to show Mormons in a modern light?

MC: In what little correspondence I saw, I never saw that there was some deep internal conflict with selling the postcard of Brigham Young and his wives. And he was not the only person with that postcard. That thing was a big seller so I found multiple, multiple versions.

Looking at that postcard is kind of like PT Barnum – like saying, come look at the freakery of Brigham Young and his many wives. And then I was looking through Susa Young Gates’ folders and she had one of the postcards! So then I thought, maybe this wasn’t as offensive to them as I had assumed. I also found them in one of the prophet’s archives in the special collections at the University of Utah. I would have assumed the postcards were really offensive, but maybe that’s what they had in terms of Victorian record.

To me it is incredibly strange that Johnson is on one hand making this work that effectively knits the Latter Day-Saints back into the nation and at the same time he’s like ‘come stare at us’. But you know, nobody ever said people were consistent.

TWiM: Most of the women he photographed were traveling actresses, correct?

MC: That’s my hypothesis. All the evidence I’ve found has supported it. With the exception perhaps of one woman who appears in his work repeatedly, which was unusual for him. Usually he took either one picture or one series of a woman and then it was done. I think these are transient women. They come through, they don’t stay long, and they leave. But there’s one woman who he photographs a handful of times. Maybe she’s an actress too or maybe they had a lasting relationship, maybe she was local. That I don’t know. But the majority I do think were actresses.

TWiM: If these are actresses traveling through, we can probably assume that they are not Mormon women and yet Johnson is still taking their images and stamping them as Utah. Were they perceived as ‘Mormon sexuality’ by the rest of the country?

MC: That is my assumption. I don’t have any journal entries of anybody out in the east being like, I looked at pictures of Mormon women. Do you know what I mean? But they are so heavily stamped ‘Utah’ that that’s how it works.

TWiM: You’ve spoken before about the court case Canon vs. United States and how it prohibited appearing like you were a polygamist. How do you think this focus on image effected the Church and does it continue?

MC: That’s the million-dollar question. I think the case made it incredibly clear to the Latter-day Saints just how immediate and pressing it was to project the proper image. If you could wind up in the territorial penitentiary for looking like a polygamist, you really needed to pay attention to the image you were projecting. I think that did to some extent drive the measures that the Church took after the first and then the second manifesto to refigure their place in the nation. I don’t think it’s any surprise that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went to the Chicago World’s Fair on an official Church mission. They were exquisitely aware of the fact that people were going to be staring at them. People turned up expecting to see them with horns. Apparently each choir member got a little book of etiquette before leaving, basically saying, ‘This is how you are going to look in public. Let’s keep it together, people, everybody’s staring.’ So I think there was this real sense that they needed to look right.

I think coming from a position of being negatively stereotyped, the Church decided they needed to look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Like, we are all going to have perfect pitch, we are going to be beautifully dressed, beautifully groomed, our families are going to be beyond reproach. We are going to look cultivated. And I do think that that kind of pressure might have gotten internalized, and it might persist in the Church.

I’m not an anthropologist, I have no standing to talk about the current Church’s relationship to image, but it was something that struck me growing up. We are talking about the vantage point of a high school or junior high school student – this is not a specialized opinion. But I did notice that there was a huge emphasis among many of my Mormon friends’ families on looking right. I feel like everybody had a framed family photograph in the foyer and generally you could look from that to the piano. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was a deeply visual culture that people could kind of clock each other, but I think that has eased with increasing globalization.

TWiM: It’s interesting that you’ve picked up on that. Growing up in Mesa I had quite a few classmates who would be surprised to find out that I am Mormon. That confused me because I thought, I’m doing the same things you are. So, what? Is it because I don’t have blonde hair?

MC: Yes! The blondness, really. Wow there’s a lot of blonde people. It was very apparent to everyone from the get go that I wasn’t Mormon because I was dark, and a half Jewish kind of dark. But I also think what you see going on with the Church now is the opposite of that with the I’m a Mormon ads. Now the Church wants everyone to look like they live in Williamsburg, do you know what I mean? Let’s look cosmopolitan. It’s a good strategy.

Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image by Mary Campbell was published in 2016 by The University of Chicago Press.

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