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The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographs of New England, 1885 - 1920

September 17, 2005 - January 8, 2006

Wall text from the exhibition

Frances Stebbins Allen and Mary Electa Allen's photographs are among the greatest visual reminders of old New England. Beginning in the 1880s, Frances (1854-1941) and Mary (1858-1941) Allen of Deerfield, Massachusetts, joined other women drawn to the newly accessible field of photography after progressive hearing loss forced both to give up their chosen careers in teaching. The Allen sisters learned their craft through photography journals and photographers summering in Deerfield. The rural landscape of western Massachusetts provided artistic vistas for the Allen sisters to work with, and Deerfield's impressive eighteenth-century homes and furnishings offered the perfect environment for their colonial re-creations. Book and magazine publishers soon commissioned photographs of children, country life, and costumed figures realizing Colonial Revival interests. Between 1896 and 1916, the flourishing of the Arts and Crafts movement in Deerfield played a critical role in Frances and Mary Allens' careers. Summer exhibitions, national press coverage, and large numbers of tourists provided the Allens with audiences not found in most rural communities. In 1901 Frances and Mary Allen were praised as being among "The Foremost Women Photographers of America."
Frances and Mary Allen's idyllic photographs, portraying a world of beauty and harmony, were allied with turn-of-the-century Pictorial photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen who advanced public perception of the medium from a record-making craft to a fine art. Indeed, in 1901 a writer applauded the Allens' artistry: The Misses Allen use their camera in the same spirit with which a painter uses his brush, and their sense of composition, of the dramatic moment, is as eminent a qualification for their art as for his. Their photographs were included in major salons such as The Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition, 1896; Third International Congress of Photography, Paris, 1900; Third Philadelphia Photographic Salon, 1900; and Art Crafts Exhibition, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1908.
The Allens took their cameras with them on trips to Great Britain in 1908 and California in 1916, where they created majestic views unlike their New England landscapes. Frances and Mary Allens' active work in photography stopped around 1920, but they continued to sell photographs from the front parlor of their home until 1935. The Allen sisters' photographic collaboration thrived for close to fifty years. Despite their former renown, their photographs remained out of view for much of the last century. This exhibition, drawn from the collections of Memorial Hall Museum, celebrates Frances and Mary Allen's artistic vision and pays homage to their extraordinary lives.
This exhibition was organized by Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, Massachusetts.
(right: Frances S. and Mary E. Allen, Forest Pool, 1905-1911, platinum print. Courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA)

"The Period Eye"
In the 1970s, the art historian Michael Baxandall introduced the highly influential concept of "The Period Eye." People in a particular culture, and at a particular time, Baxandall argued, share experiences and ways of thinking that influence how they perceive, understand, and appreciate images. In Renaissance Italy, for example, a growing emphasis on arithmetic and geometry may have encouraged the development of linear perspective; in sixteenth-century Germany, where calligraphy was given special emphasis, artists favored sinuous curves instead. Art, in other words, reflects more than individual genius. It is a mirror of all that society holds dear.


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