Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship

Mormon Studies Review


mormon studies, visual culture, plural marriage, early mormonism


Through the lens of photographer Charles Ellis Johnson (1857– 1926), Mary Campbell captures the subtleties of Mormon visual culture at the turn of the twentieth century as the Latter-day Saints struggled to jettison plural marriage and adapt themselves to the demands of American citizenship. 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. At its center is the enigmatic Charles Ellis Johnson, whose thick photographic dossier is matched with a correspondingly thin textual record. The gap between what Campbell is able to document about Johnson’s life history and how she speculatively extrapolates from that spare evidence creates a number of conundrums—not least a puzzle about how to interpret Johnson’s religious identity, especially during the last third of his life after 1903 when he starts producing “a fine line of spicy pictures of girls” (p. 59).