Although the Washington Salon clearly brought the sisters their first formal recognition as art photographers, their friendship with fellow Salon exhibitor, Frances Benjamin Johnston of Washington, D.C., was perhaps of equal importance. Beginning with this exhibition, Frances Benjamin Johnston played a critical role in advancing the Allen sisters’ careers.41 Her involvement as an exhibitor, judge, or organizer of significant turn-of-the-century photography exhibitions, and her press connections, worked to the Allens’ advantage. Blue and White Society co-founder Margaret Whiting’s niece, Agnes Whiting Wynne of Springfield, Massachusetts, was the link between the Allen sisters and Johnston.42
Frances Benjamin Johnston was the official White House photographer during the Grover Cleveland and William McKinley administrations. As such, she extended an invitation to Mary to attend Republican William McKinley’s Presidential Inauguration in 1897. Mary was deferential in her response: “It is a really important event, of course, and would be quite an experience for me—But, shouldn’t I be in the way? … It goes without saying that I am a dead letter socially. If my hanging around on the outskirts wouldn’t bother you—I should take a deal of comfort I know…. I wish a ‘Biger’ man than McKinley could be put in for the occasion—My interest does not center in him personally—The whole thing in the abstract, has a strong interest…. I might go… ‘Providence permitting, and if it does not rain’—as it probably won’t and will.”43
Mary attended McKinley’s inauguration.44 She also took photographs in Johnston’s studio. Johnston’s African-American servant, Margaret, likely participated in a session to allow Johnston to show Mary new techniques. The resulting photograph, Our Margaret, is a departure from Mary’s previous work.45 Mary stopped in New York on her return home, where she toured an exhibition of Robert C. Minor’s paintings. Her comments on a number of his landscapes, “early morning things with a luminous sky and misty distance, make your blood go quicker,”46 reveal her high regard of Barbizon paintings.
Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.