The Allen Sisters: An Introduction

by Naomi Rosenblum

American women discovered the camera a little more than one hundred years ago. From the late 1880s on, middle-class women living both in urban centers and in rural enclaves found that photography could provide a means of making a living and also an outlet for artistic strivings. They operated portrait studios, made landscapes, and produced scenes of everyday life, realizing creative ambitions while earning a livelihood. This conjunction of art and commerce is nowhere better illustrated than in the work of Frances and Mary Allen. 

Of course, photography had been around since 1839, when two methods of making images by the action of light had been announced almost simultaneously. The daguerreotype, discovered in France, was preferred initially for commercial portraiture because of its exceptionally fine detail. Although immensely popular both in Europe and the United States, only small numbers of women were involved in exploiting it. Those who did open studios or travel from town to town as itinerant portraitists in pursuit of commercial gain often did so with a spouse, or if alone, for only a short while. 

For a brief period following its appearance, the daguerreotype also answered the nineteenth century’s growing desire for scenic depictions, although as a unique object, the image on the metal plate could not be duplicated and had to be reproduced in an ink medium.  Few women were involved in scenic photography; a surprising exception was Franziska Möllinger. This Swiss citizen, who must have traveled through her native countryside in a darkroom wagon, daguerreotyped its natural and built landmarks, which were then translated into lithographed views. 

Eventually, the daguerreotype was supplanted by the negative positive process, which had been announced in England by William Henry Fox Talbot at about the same time. The appeal of this procedure was limited due to its complexity, its lack of definition, and its instability. In the 1850s, collodion-coated glass took the place of the paper negative and albumen-coated paper of the salted paper positive, but photography still remained a messy and troublesome business, requiring immediate processing with chemicals that stained clothing and flesh. Nevertheless, a small number of women, mostly in Great Britain and largely of the leisure class, did employ the medium to record family members and friends, to depict the landscape, and to make visible the fabled myths of their culture. Among them, Julia Margaret Cameron was probably the most masterful portraitist of her era, while the less well known Clementina, Lady Hawarden, produced elegant tableaux featuring family members. Both women regarded photography as an artistic enterprise rather than a means of livelihood, although Cameron was not averse to selling work.

Until the 1880s, however, women constituted a minor presence in professional and leisure-time photography. Then, in the United States especially, they were drawn to the field in significant numbers. This outburst of activity can be ascribed to a number of developments, in particular, to the appearance on the market of the Kodak—a hand-held portable fixed focus camera—and to the emergence of commercial chemical processing (developing and printing) studios. The new equipment and the availability of commercial processing attracted amateurs of both sexes, but offered a particular advantage to women. Furthermore, as the gatekeepers of family life, women became the focus of the George Eastman Company’s advertising campaigns, which urged them to use the Kodak to record domestic scenes. Many women, like the Allens, were soon employing more complex equipment and experimenting with more complicated processing techniques. As one commentator noted, “the woman who began with the Kodak . . . is seldom satisfied until she is mistress of larger boxes and expensive lenses.”1

Easier technology was not the only, and perhaps not even the most significant, matter affecting women’s lives in the last decades of the nineteenth century. American middle-class women were experiencing new physical and psychological freedoms brought about by the availability of factory-produced food and clothing. This development, along with cheap immigrant household help, allowed women to spend greater amounts of time in non-domestic pursuits. Bicycling and photography, at times in tandem, were exceptionally popular. As their leisure time increased, they could afford to pay attention to the suffragists’ admonitions that besides their role as family caretakers, women had “duties to themselves.”2 Without the liberating rhetoric of the suffragist movement, they might have had greater difficulty justifying their involvement in photography as a serious pursuit.

In addition, large numbers of women had received some training in the arts, but could not devote themselves to raising a family while pursuing an all-encompassing career as a painter or sculptor. Photography was less rigorous and time-consuming than any of the established art media. It could be taken up with seriousness or practiced only occasionally when family duties permitted. This was an important consideration for women with domestic obligations. For many, caring for children, husbands, and elderly relatives claimed priority. The Allen sisters—unmarried, childless, and with younger family helpers—were fortunate in being able to pursue the photography business relatively unhampered by domestic demands.

Photography could be both aesthetically and socially challenging, as well as commercially viable. By enabling women to take pictures in studios, on urban streets, and in rural settings, as well as in their homes, photography permitted its users broader social intercourse than was ordinarily enjoyed by their gender. For women who looked upon the medium as a source of income, as did Frances and Mary Allen, it had the advantage of not being markedly competitive with male-dominated professions. As a writer in The Woman’s Book noted, the profession of photography should appeal to women “content with a small income.”3 In sum, the medium accorded well with the culture’s prevailing ideas about women’s role in society.

By the first decade of the new century, American women were being regarded as significant figures in applied and recreational photography. Two prime examples are the portraitists Gertrude Käsebier (who had taken up the medium only after her children were grown) and Eva Watson-Schütze. Each maintained a classy salon in an urban center, which catered largely to the carriage trade and counted women and children as important clients. Their artistic handling of light and their sensitivity to décor and expression were praised for having raised the level of the portrait-making, which for some years had been degenerating into the production of little more than dreary facial maps. The more artistic product supplied by Käsebier and Watson-Schütze (and others like them) accorded with the self-image of well-to-do urban-based clients who fancied themselves appreciative of the finer things in life. The Allens were unusual in that they took a similar aesthetic approach to the portraiture of local folk in a provincial village.

Women were especially praised for being uniquely able to portray motherhood and the young with grace and sensitivity. It was held that only they had the capacity to capture the sensation of familial love on the sensitized plate and reproduce it in a platinum or silver print. “[N]o man, howsoever gifted,” noted one critic, could bring this sensation to life because it required a person whose “whole being vibrated with the joy of mother’s love.”4 In this, too, the sisters showed themselves especially sensitive to the problem of capturing the special qualities of child life. In a middle-class culture fixated on the proper upbringing of children, portraiture of mothers and children was a highly profitable enterprise, and the women who excelled usually were well recompensed.

With artistic sensitivity believed intrinsic to the feminine psyche, many women looked upon photography as a way to satisfy their strivings for an artistic outlet. Starting in the late 1880s, attempts to elevate the status of photography from a record-making craft to an art medium were widespread throughout the nation. Societies devoted to promoting this concept, which was known as Pictorialism, were founded in major cities on both the east and west coasts as well as in the interior. Unlike a number of the older camera clubs, they welcomed women. The salons they organized not only displayed camera art, but instituted an elaborate award structure for such work. Frances and Mary Allen lived and worked in a small community in New England, but they were aware of the artistic currents and the organizations that promoted photography as art. Like many of their female contemporaries who believed that art might soften the rough edges of competitive American culture, their involvement in the Arts and Crafts movement gave voice to a craving for a spiritual dimension in life.

Women who sought a medium for creative personal expression in photography frequently patterned their themes and their treatments on traditional works of art by accepted masters, both European and American. Familiar with such art through their artistic training as well as from the ubiquity of lithographic reproductions of famous paintings, they tended to choose similar subject matter when they turned to photography. Flowers, religious tableaux, genre scenes (ordinary happenings, usually of a rural nature), and landscapes are predominant themes in their work.

Genre scenes were particularly saleable because of the American public’s preference for an art product that seemed to tell a story or carry a message. Such images could be sold as book or calendar illustration or as art for the wall. Rural genre, such as that produced by the Allen sisters, was especially appealing to the women who, tied to small towns, found the stuff of art in the daily doings of farm folk and local shopkeepers. The style of such works displays a fairly limited range. Some exhibit a posed and stilted appearance while others seem more natural and spontaneous. However, during a period in which American society was being transformed from agrarian to industrial, this type of rural imagery undoubtedly responded to the nostalgia for bygone times. The Allen sisters were able to satisfy one facet of this yearning for the past, which manifested itself in the renewed interest in colonial artifacts, buildings, and dress following the Centennial Exposition of 1876.  

Many of the women celebrated in their time for this kind of imagery have been forgotten; in part because taste has changed radically, in part because the work itself was lost to view. This book celebrates work by two sisters whose photography remained inaccessible and barely known until Suzanne Flynt undertook this project. Another example of such neglect is Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, also a rural New Englander, who specialized in making photographs of farm people and their children engaged in typical pursuits such as churning butter or weaving baskets. For many years her work was entirely unknown because it had been discarded when descendents set up the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine, to honor the two brothers who had invented an early American steam driven motor car. It was only later that a perceptive curator started to acquire the by then dispersed output of the photographer sister.

Not all women working in the Pictorialist style of the early twentieth century suffered such treatment. Anne W. Brigman is an example of one whose creative production was never completely obscured, although it was frequently disparaged, and did not arouse great interest until the feminist revival of the 1970s. A Californian who was a member of the advanced wing of the Pictorialist movement known as the Photo-Secession (headed by Alfred Stieglitz), Brigman sought to evoke transcendent emotions by portraying women disporting themselves in the wild California landscape. Usually realized in soft focus, with applied handwork, these images can be seen as metaphors for their maker’s impassioned sense of the interrelationship between nature and womanhood.

Artistic expression, whether of a commonplace or a transcendent variety, often found its way to an audience through the medium of ink print rather than silver print. The discovery in the last decade of the nineteenth century of the half-tone method of reproduction enabled photographs to be more easily and inexpensively reproduced. As more and more publications made use of camera images instead of artists’ drawings for their illustrations, women found that they could sell photographic portraits, views of landscape and architecture, and genre studies to book, calendar, and magazine publishers. The Craftsmen magazine used Käsebier’s portraits of the New York realist painters in articles on their work. In the early years of the century, Ohio photographer Nancy Ford Cones sold sentimental farm scenes to Country Life in America and Women’s Home Companion. The Allen sisters supplied illustrations for many books, including forty-five plates for Alice M. Earle’s Home Life in Colonial Days, as well as a number of magazines.

For women with “health, strength, and the ability to hustle,” the discovery of half-tone printing opened the possibility of specializing in magazine and newspaper illustration.5 Prefiguring what today would be called photojournalism, Frances Benjamin Johnston advertised herself as being in the business of making photographic illustration for magazines, illustrated weeklies, and newspapers. She focused on people working in mines and factories and recorded activities aboard Navy vessels sailing in the Caribbean. Her best known documentation, made at Hampton Institute in Virginia and in the Washington, D.C., public schools, consist of clearly defined and unretouched scenes, whose subjects had been astutely arranged to show these institutions and their students in the best possible light. Johnston, who was intent on promoting women’s photographic work, was in touch with nearly all the active women photographers of her time, including the Allens.

For women, the choice of documentation as a field of activity was unusual but not unique. During a career beginning in 1900 and lasting some forty years, Jessie Tarbox Beals carried on as a press photographer. Throughout the United States, other women equipped with portable cameras ventured out of their homes to document life around them, sometimes as a means of earning money, but more frequently for recreational reasons. Emmons photographed subjects encountered casually on the streets of Kingfield. Cones captured the unposed spontaneity of picnics held on her Ohio farm and also documented extraordinary events such as car wrecks to sell to the local press. Evelyn Cameron, a transplanted English woman in need of financial resources, portrayed daily life on her husband’s Montana wheat farm. All hoped to sell their work either for reproduction in print media, or as individual prints in platinum or silver.

Some women peered well beyond their immediate surroundings. E. Alice Austen depicted not only her genteel homeland on Staten Island, but also traveled across New York Bay on the newly opened ferry service to capture street life in lower Manhattan. There, in the unladylike terrain of the Battery and the Lower East Side, she documented immigrant food vendors, scissors grinders, and ash collectors. It would be difficult to envision the well-bred Austen frequenting such rough neighborhoods without a camera in hand and a photographic mission in mind.

From the end of the century on, women were using both their Kodaks and more sophisticated equipment to document scenes far from home turf. The Allen sisters took their equipment on trips to England and to the West; Emmons took along a camera on her trip from Maine to South Carolina, where besides recording the elegant frontages of Charleston architecture for a magazine article she portrayed black southerners and Appalacian mountain folk. In the 1890s, Septima M. Collis, while visiting Alaska, produced a volume of images “kodaked by the author.”6 Edith Watson photographed throughout Canada, portraying Mennonites, Doukhobors, and Cape Breton Islanders. Some women had an ideological agenda. In 1913, Edith Tracy, a fashionable New York portraitist, set out with three cameras to photograph the construction of the Panama Canal in an explicit endeavor to show that women could make pictures of  “steam shovels as well as [of] children.”7 Published in Colliers and exhibited in a New York gallery, the images were highly acclaimed.

When the Allen sisters began their joint career, women had been welcomed into photography; but as World War I ended, so did the accolades showered on them. In the face of returning veterans and economic recession, they were urged to return to home and hearth. As the sisters’ career demonstrates, however, this call was not heeded by all. Frances and Mary went on producing and selling their work into the 1930s. In fact, despite the lack of vocal praise or welcome, women’s involvement in the medium actually expanded. Quietly, they were being employed during the 1920s in archeological, scientific, and theatrical documentation. New areas in such formerly male preserves as fashion and consumer product photography opened up a bit, providing careers for Wynn Richards and Margaret Watkins, among others. In Europe as well as in the United States, women began to travel ever more widely to undertake documentary projects in distant parts of the world and to contribute more frequently to the picture magazines. They also confronted subject matter that for the most part they formerly had avoided. Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of machinery and power stations for Fortune magazine demonstrated that women were capable of producing the kind of energetic images of industry that the culture had thought of as being an exclusively male purview. 

This same culture still lagged behind in according women professionals the respect given their male colleagues. For all her fame as a photographer of modern industrialism, Bourke-White was not permitted to lease her studio space without a male co-signer! Marion Post (later Wolcott), who traveled in the South for the Farm Security Administration, was regularly admonished by director Roy Stryker to behave like a “lady.” Needless to say, the male photographers on similar assignments were not instructed about their behavior. While on assignment, male colleagues of magazine photographer Constance Bannister were so apt to deface her work when she shared the common darkroom facility that she did her processing in her hotel bathroom. 

With time, such indignities disappeared. From the 1930s on, as more women entered the field, their presence became less remarkable and, slowly, male resistance waned. Women photographers can now be found in every aspect of the medium and in many ancillary positions such as picture editor and curator of photography. The medium, too, changed as photography came to assume a place of prime importance as a means of creative expression. Frances and Mary Allen could not have envisaged these changes, but, along with other women of their generation, their artistry and determination must be counted as the seeds that germinated into the full flowering of women’s role in the medium. 

Endnotes

1 C.A. Mera, “Pastime Photography,” Godey’s Magazine 134 (March 1897): 227.

2 Elizabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 165.

3 Philip G. Hubert, “Occupations for Women,” in The Woman’s Book, vol I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 11. 

4 Joseph T. Keiley, “The Philadelphia Salon—Its Origin and Influence,”Camera Notes 2 (January 1899): 130.

5 Jessie Tarbox Beals, quoted in Alexander Alland Sr., Jessie Tarbox Beals (New York: Camera Graphic Press, 1978), 53.

6 Septima M. Collis, A Woman’s Trip to Alaska (New York: Cassell Publishing, 1890).

7 Edith Hastings Tracy, in an undated, untitled typescript, courtesy of Mary Mix Foley, Washington, D.C.