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 took to it ten years ago as a resource, when we were obliged to give up teaching—The first thing that gained any attention was our studies of children with country backgrounds—Visiting artists liked them for studies and publishers reproduced them—We do some non conventional portraiture and some landscape work, but our chief work is illustrations for books and magazines—You know we helped illustrate Mrs. Earle’s two books, “Home Life” & “Child Life in Colonial Days” —Marion Harland’s “Colonial Houses” and “Historic Towns” pub. by the Putnams— We did almost forty plates for Mrs. Wynne last year to illustrate a series of papers in “The House Beautiful”—and have done various other odd things of the same sort for one magazine or another—sometimes simply objects—and sometimes figures in costume—We have beside done a good many figure things for covers or frontispieces for magazines, or to illustrate others—We have a commission waiting from Mr. Zacacci for McClures’—which is being unconscionably delayed. We have had anything to hinder in the last few months but I don’t suppose we should hustle as you do even if we were as free—Mother is quite comfortable again now—Aunt Louise died in April, Aunt Lucy is very feeble and requires much looking after. My brother Caleb is in the middle of a season with a badly broken leg—All these things are as important as photographs and interfere somewhat. We are just getting to work again after an interval—
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. Allen54
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.”55 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. Johnston and her mother, Frances A. Johnston, hastily arranged for 142 photographs to travel to Russia. Arrangements were subsequently made for the exhibition to return to The Photo-Club of Paris the following January.56 As it did for all the participants, this international exhibition gave the Allen sisters extraordinary exposure.
Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.