Introduction to the Exhibit

By Melanie Gustafson

Frances Stebbins Allen (1854-1941) and Mary Electa Allen (1858-1941), once praised by Frances Benjamin Johnston as being among “The Foremost Women Photographers in America,” exhibited their works in major photography exhibits in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Among these shows are the Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition of 1896; the Third International Congress of Photography in Paris and the Third Philadelphia Photographic Salon, both in 1900; the Canadian Pictorialist Exhibition Montreal of 1907; and Seventh Exhibition of Arts and Crafts at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1908.

The sisters took up photography in the mid-1880s and by the beginning of the next decade their work was being published in regional magazines and books and they were entering photography contests, which resulted in more publications of their works and greater notice from the public and artists. The Smithsonian Institution purchased two of their works for the National Museum. In 1895, they set up a studio with exhibit space in their in Deerfield, Massachusetts home, selling their works to visitors who were drawn to the town’s history and its association with the Arts and Crafts Movement. The sisters explained that their photographs should be seen as collectable as the embroidered and quilted textiles, woven baskets, and braided rugs desired by most visitors. Photography, Mary Allen stated in 1901, “stand midway between the arts and crafts.”

Frances and Mary Allen practiced an artistic style known as Pictorialism. Early practitioners of pictorialism sought to render each image they captured with sensitivity, enhancing the image’s and therefore the world’s, beauty. The Allen sisters worked not to depict the present world around them but a past world as they imagined it: colonial, nostalgic, rural. Theirs is a place of peace populated by hard working men, heroic women, and majestic children. The industrialized and technological world that made possible the sisters’ lives as photographers had no place in their images yet it was crucial to their success. The proliferation of illustrated magazines and books gave them clients, and professional publications furnished them with information they needed to develop their skills and interact with the art world.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Allen sisters retreated from the art world but they continued to sell their photographs to Deerfield’s visitors. After their deaths in 1941, their glass plate negatives were preserved by a relative before being donated to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, where they were sorted, catalogued, and, when possible, individuals in the photographs were identified. As curator of the Association’s Memorial Hall Museum, Suzanne Flynt took the lead in recovering the history and art of the Allen sisters by writing about them and mounting a traveling exhibit of their work.

Clio Visualizing History is grateful to Suzanne Flynt for facilitating this exhibit and granting permission to republish text from her book The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographers 1885-1920  (Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association/University Press of New England, 2002). (Link to her book We are also grateful to the Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, Massachusetts for permission to include images of the Allen sisters photography in this exhibit. The images accompanying the text are not necessarily presented in the same manner as they appear in The Allen Sisters; they have been selected and ordered specifically for this online exhibit format. In addition, some captions have been edited.