The Allen sisters entered amateur competitions, generally with their ingenious photographs of children. In 1893, hundreds of photographers sent pictures to a contest sponsored by The Illustrated Buffalo Express. Frances and Mary Allen’s photographs, “Making Squash Babies” and “Feeding the Babes,” were reproduced as they “illustrate perfectly what it is possible to do in the way of photographing children. Each of these pictures is a work of art, a picture full of the sweet naturalness of childhood, and a triumph of amateur photography.” The Illustrated Buffalo Express further admonished its readers “that a figure-picture in which the figures show that they are posing, is bad work, and stands absolutely no chance in a competition which makes artistic treatment and originality two of its four counts.”12

Frances and Mary entered The Quarterly Illustrator prize photography competition in 1894. Preeminent photographer Gertrude Käsebier won,13 but author Henry M. Steele selected two Allen photographs of children for a subsequent article, “The Artistic Side of Photography.” With the hope that his constructive criticism would be useful to readers,  Steele commented on the Allens’ photograph “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?”:  “the children themselves are extremely good in character, and the photograph technically is an excellent one; but there is a lack of naturalness and ease about the attitudes of the figures that make it evident that they were posed for the purpose. As difficult as it must have been for Frances and Mary to read these criticisms in a periodical, their work was now being judged within a national arena, and their successes as well as their failures elicited comment. The Allens took the comments seriously and rarely again made those errors in composition or posing. A photograph taken several years later of an unrestrained little girl playfully pulling the long tresses of an older playmate depicts a whimsicalness not seen in earlier photographs.

Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.