Winterthur, Del. — Working in a silent world, two deaf sisters in turn-of-the-century New England captured the pastoral images of their tiny community, enveloping themselves in the new world of artistic photography.
The Allen sisters attracted international acclaim in a rapidly modernizing world with their idealized images evoking a simpler, more rural lifestyle.
But after their deaths in 1941, the memory of Frances and Mary Allen, once considered among the foremost women photographers in the country, seemed to fade like a worn snapshot. Their glass plate negatives sat neglected, forgotten for years until distant relatives began an effort to restore and preserve them.
As a result of that work, the Winterthur Museum is offering a glimpse into their world. "A Moment in Time: Photographs by the Allen Sisters, 1885-1920" runs through Sept. 7. The exhibit features 50 platinum prints, including portraits, landscapes and architectural photographs, from a surviving body of work numbering some 2,500 images.
"I wanted to show a range of their work, and I wanted to show some of their best work," said exhibit organizer Suzanne Flynt, curator of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association's Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Mass., where the sisters lived. "For every wonderful picture of a child or a landscape, it's representative of that genre of their work."
The Delaware show stems in part from a Winterthur research fellowship won by Flynt, who began mounting a series of exhibitions of Allen photographs in Deerfield in 1997.
Anne Verplanck, curator of prints and paintings at Winterthur, has complemented the photographs with books and magazines from the Winterthur library, helping place them in the context of the colonial revival and arts and crafts movements.
"The strength of the library collection is one of the reasons we wanted the exhibit here," Verplanck said.
Rural subject matter
Among the Winterthur holdings is a copy of the July 1901 Ladies Home Journal featuring a photo spread by the sisters, who also supplied art to magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Country Life in America.
After returning to Deerfield from Winterthur, the exhibit will move to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn.
The show is arranged roughly in chronological order, but also includes groupings of portraits and landscapes, several of the latter taken during trips to California and Great Britain.
While posed, the portraits lose little warmth or human interest.
"These children's pictures are particularly evocative," Verplanck said. "Apparently, they were especially good at making children feel comfortable."
One of the earliest portraits by the sisters is a gelatin silver print of their mother, Mary Stebbins Allen, posing as "A Holbein Woman" (circa 1892), the first photograph in the exhibit.
The sisters' artistic influence extended beyond Holbein, however. The pastoral scene of "Onion Harvest" (1912-1914) recalls Millet's "The Gleaners." Rembrandt's "Study of an Old Man" is transformed into "A Patriarch" (circa 1915), while domestic interiors such as "The Warming Pan" (1898-1900) conjure images of Vermeer.
On the other hand, "Learning to Sew" (1898-1900) predates Cassat's "Young Mother Sewing" by at least two years, suggesting the Allens had their own artistic vision.
While their rural subject matter deviated from that of other art photographers, most of whom lived in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago, the Allens were entrenched in the pictorialist movement led by Alfred Stieglitz, in which photographers sought to produce images more artistic than journalistic.
"They were completely cut off from the industrial idea," said Naomi Rosenblum, author of "The History of Women Photographers," who wrote the foreword to the 190-page book that accompanies the exhibit. "Their subject matter was necessarily constricted in a way; it's not like they were photographing New York or Chicago."
Lens on the past
Working strictly with natural light, the Allens were guided by the backward-looking colonial revival and arts and crafts movements, inspired partly by the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia.
"You'll see no evidence of modern life in their photographs," Flynt said. "It was looking to the past, to the perceived notion of a simpler time."
The sisters eschewed the sharp contrast and lines of silver prints in favor of platinum prints, which offered lower resolution and wider tonal values.
"There's a sort of softness to them," Flynt said.
The Allens became involved in photography in the early 1880s after progressive hearing loss forced them to abandon careers as teachers. A doctor who reviewed their medical histories has suggested the Allens may have suffered from chronic ear infections or had otosclerosis, an abnormal growth of bone of the middle ear that may be hereditary, and from which Beethoven also is said to have suffered.
The sisters benefited from a convergence of industrialization, which freed middle-class women from time-intensive household chores, and the technological improvements by George Eastman and others that made photographic equipment less bulky, more portable and more marketable to women.
The success of the Allen sisters stemmed partly from connections they made in Deerfield, a summer haven for artists, photographers and tourists.
The Allens gained formal recognition at the Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition of 1896, which resulted in two of their photographs being purchased by the Smithsonian Institution for its new division of photographic history. Fellow exhibitor Frances Benjamin Johnston, the White House photographer in the Cleveland and McKinley administrations, became a friend and was instrumental in advancing their careers.
Exhibitions of the sisters' work included the Royal Photographic Society in London (1897), the Third International Congress of Photography in Paris (1900), St. Petersburg and Moscow (1900), the Canadian Pictorialist Exhibition in Montreal (1907) and The Art Institute of Chicago (1908).
The sisters continued their photography through the early 1920s, when their health began to decline.
Frances, blind as well as deaf for the final 11 years of her life, died of pneumonia on Valentine's Day 1941 at the age of 86. Her death was followed four days later by that of 82-year-old Mary, a constant companion who would read to her sister by touching her hand in a pattern corresponding to letters on an "alphabet glove."
"I think that I learned to spell at an early age through that," said grandniece Jody Faust, 73, of Maine, whose family came to live with her great-aunts in 1932.
While her great-aunts had stopped taking photographs years before, Faust recalls tourists stopping by to browse through prints and postcards for sale in the front parlor.
After the sisters died, their plates were left in the attic. When the house was sold, the plates were moved to a relative's home and stored on a porch.
"They had languished, exposed to the elements, for over 20 years, with just a blanket over them," Flynt said.
Eventually, the plates were brought to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Assn.'s library by Margaret Harris Allen, wife of a nephew of the sisters. Margaret Allen helped researchers begin identifying the subjects in the photographs, and her daughter, Judith Allen Lawrence, picked up the torch in 1973.
"I'm overwhelmingly happy that their work is again being appreciated," Faust said.