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History of Erotic Mormon Images

mary-campbell-bookMary Campbell, assistant professor of art history, published her first book, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image, with the University of Chicago Press in December 2016. Her book is the winner of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art Publication Grant.

About the Book

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.

Book Reviews

Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image is a fascinating account of a 19th 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


“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


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

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