It therefore comes as no surprise that Frances Benjamin Johnston, when asked to deliver a paper and organize an exhibition on the work of American women photographers for the Third International Congress of Photography in Paris, requested that the Allen sisters submit a biographical sketch and photographs. Held in conjunction with the grand Universal Exposition of 1900, Johnston’s presentation and exhibition promised high visibility. Mary Allen’s response, written with familiarity and modesty, underscores the difficult task of balancing familial obligations and a career in an era when family concerns, for women, were considered primary:
June 4th 1900. Dear Miss Johnston—
I will send you a few prints to show what sort of work we have done in a few days— I should be glad to compose an autobiography also, but you know already all there is to know. We have no “methods” and no “conditions”—We have had no training either—technical or artistic—and we have no theories—We take what work comes to hand—and it fits itself as it can into the intervals of other duties, for it still has to take a secondary place….
We appreciate the privilege of being included in the American Women—and only wish we had something of more interest to offer you—We have to be rather careful as to the publication of anything that has been or is to be published here. I suppose it is more a matter of business with us than with most amateurs—Probably there will be no question of anyone’s wanting anything we may send you—
Give our kindest regards to your family—Wishing you a pleasant journey and a successful presentation of the women—
Very sincerely yours— Mary E. Allen23
The last-minute funding for this exhibition gave Frances Benjamin Johnston little time to organize it. Johnston solicited over 150 photographs from thirty-one women photographers. When the June 1900 exhibition opened in Paris, there were four photographs by the Allen sisters, including “A Difficult Step” (previously titled “A Steep Path”), “A Crack with the Blacksmith,” “A Holbein Woman,” and “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” described in a French exhibition review as “Portrait de Mme X.”24 The landmark exhibition was so impressive that Russian Wiacheslav I. Sreznewsky requested that it travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow in the fall of 1900. Arrangements were subsequently made for the exhibition to return to The Photo-Club of Paris the following January.25 As it did for all the participants, this international exhibition gave the Allen sisters extraordinary exposure.
Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.