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Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image

On September 25, 1890, the Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff publicly instructed his followers to abandon polygamy. In doing so, he initiated a process that would fundamentally alter the Latter-day Saints and their faith. Trading the most integral elements of their belief system for national acceptance, the Mormons recreated themselves as model Americans.

Mary Campbell tells the story of this remarkable religious transformation in Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image. One of the church’s favorite photographers, Johnson (1857–1926) spent the 1890s and early 1900s taking pictures of Mormonism’s most revered figures and sacred sites. At the same time, he did a brisk business in mail-order erotica, creating and selling stereoviews that he referred to as his “spicy pictures of girls.” Situating these images within the religious, artistic, and legal culture of turn-of-the-century America, Campbell reveals the unexpected ways in which they worked to bring the Saints into the nation’s mainstream after the scandal of polygamy.

Engaging, interdisciplinary, and deeply researched, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image demonstrates the profound role pictures played in the creation of both the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the modern American nation.

192 pages | 10 color plates, 75 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2016

Art: Photography

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Media Studies

Religion: American Religions


"Boasting the inclusion of over eighty images and large format printing with semigloss pages, the book is gorgeous. Fortunately, the packaging befits the thought and writing. . .beautifully written and already a breath of fresh air for a discipline that has all too often missed the historical significance of material media practices. . .smart, enlightening, and thoroughly novel. And these contributions, coupled with extensive historical research, are more than welcome."

Journal of Mormon History

“In Johnson’s vast stereographic archive, Campbell has a treasure trove, which she frequently alchemizes into interpretive gold on everything from Victorian tourism to chorus-girl sexuality to Mormon historical memory to women’s rights activism. Hers is a visually sumptuous book, filled with close and often sparkling explications of particular images. . .rich and fascinating.”

Mormon Studies Review

“The story of Johnson and his art remains a compelling microhistory of his faith, and casts into illuminating light a story often told through abstractions. . .a fascinating book.”

Nova Religio

"Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image is a solid and significant effort to recuperate an understudied commercial photographer who had a thriving practice in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The author’s thesis is clear and, although she readily demonstrates her understanding of critical theorists such as Roland Barthes and Laura Mulvey, there is little jargon."


Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image is a fascinating account of a nineteenth-century polymath who spent a lifetime making photographs and making a living among his fellow Mormons as they transitioned from a persecuted, separatist sect best known for polygamy to mainstream, monogamous Americans. This versatile craftsman’s portraits, cityscapes, and studio fantasies testify equally to the curiosity aroused by the multiple-wife households of Utah’s ‘saints’ and to Johnson’s business acumen. Campbell has deftly brought his story to life—a model instance of social history substantially enriched by an adroit reading of a formerly neglected visual archive.”

Margaretta M. Lovell, author of Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America

Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image is brilliant in its persuasive interpretation of the photography of Johnson as an act of repositioning the Latter-day Saints in mainstream American society. Campbell’s extremely compelling analysis will have tremendous appeal to scholars in history of art, religious studies, American studies, and history, as well as to a larger reading public. Beautifully written and engaging, this book has my strongest endorsement.”

Sally M. Promey, author of Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion” at the Boston Public Library

“A beautiful meditation on the agency of photographs, this book on the Mormon photographer Charles Ellis Johnson is also a remarkable account of American sexuality, its rituals, and its prohibitions, down to the last strap unfurled from the last shoulder in that photograph earmarked for an eager customer in Fresno. Sexuality itself lies coquettishly hidden in almost all studies of American art except this one.”

Alexander Nemerov, author of Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1          A Royal Saint
2          Civil Saints
3          Johnson’s New Century Girls
4          Mormon Harems
5          Lady Saints
6          Stereoscopic Saints



Mormon History Association: Mormon History Association Book Awards
Honorable Mention

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