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.”32
Frances and Mary’s response to having their work selected was published in the photography journal, The Photo-Beacon, “Prize-Winners’ Accounts of Themselves”:
Our methods are too simple to have much interest for the skilled amateur photographer who tries all the new processes. We use the camera simply as a quick way of sketching, and regard all the technical part, which comes after the exposure is made, as a necessary evil.
Your criticism of our work from a photographic point of view is as just as your estimate of its artistic value is generous. Of course, technic does not consist merely in microscopic focusing, or always in depth of focus, or sharpness to the edge of the plate. Those qualities have their value in architectural studies, or work of that sort. In pictures, artistic excellence is usually entirely at variance with what is called a perfect photograph. The eye cannot focus itself on every object in its field of vision at the same time. If a photograph does this, the effect is hard and unnatural. But there must be method in this madness. A picture is not necessarily beautiful because it is blurred, and there’s need of all one’s technical skill, even after a good negative is made, in adapting the print to its peculiar individual qualities.
The merit of posing, which you kindly give us credit for, belongs rather to the models. Our chief virtue is in letting them alone. We usually have better success with children who are not too highly civilized, or too conventionally clothed, or who are too young to be conscious. We give them a general idea of the picture we want, and then let them alone until they forget about us and the drop catches an unconscious pose. They consider it a game, and are always ready to play at it.
Thanking you for your generous approval of our aims, which we are not always sure to carry out successfully, we are
Very sincerely yours,
F.S. & M. E. Allen33
The Allen sisters’ modest letter doesn’t begin to acknowledge their well-honed vision and sense of composition. It was this talent that would set them apart from the hordes of other “snap shooters,” as hobbyist photographers were called.
Frances and Mary entered The Quarterly Illustrator prize photography competition in 1894. Preeminent photographer Gertrude Käsebier won,34 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. The absence of freedom in the figures, and the fact that they are placed all in a row, make the picture, on the whole, disappointing.” Likewise, Steele commented on their second photograph, Playing Old Maid: “the figure of the old man is excellent, and the child is not bad; but the composition would have been much improved if the picture had been cut off considerably on the right. The lines at the left of the door are not altogether pleasant, and a trifle more of the foreground would have helped the composition materially.”35 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.
While their photographs attracted attention through competitions and publishing, the Allen sisters augmented their income by writing magazine articles. Frances wrote a series called “Stories of the Public School,” while Mary wrote about the Arts and Crafts movement and the history of Deerfield.36 Many of Mary’s articles were illustrated with their photographs.
Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.