Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Frances and Mary Allen Collection of Photographs of Deerfield
As Frances Allen and her younger sister Mary gradually lost their hearing in the 1880s, they were forced to abandon their careers as teachers and find a new livelihood. They found that livelihood through photography, turning artistic views of local scenery into a long career that brought them international recognition and the reputation as two of the best female photographers of their day.
The Allens were probably introduced to photography by their brother, Edmund, and they are known to have been taking images by at least 1884. The realization that photography held the potential for income came somewhat more slowly, but by the end of the decade, the sisters were accepting commissions and were publishing in works like Horace E. Miller's Sketches of Conway (1890) and Picturesque Franklin.
At the time that the Allens were branching out in their new career, their native Deerfield, Mass., was emerging as a local center of the arts and crafts movement. Both Frances and Mary readily adopted the aesthetic and its nostalgia for the pre-industrial past, and their mature work shows the influence of like-minded pictorialist photographers such as Henry Peach Robinson. Specializing in views of Deerfield and surrounding towns, posed genre scenes of colonial life, and gauzy shots of the region's scenery, the Allens' work was included in a number of important exhibitions, including the Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition (1896), the 3rd International Congress of Photography, Paris (1900), the 3rd Philadelphia Photographic Salon (1900), the Canadian Pictorialist Exhibition (1907), and at the Art Institute of Chicago (1908).
Although they are uniquely associated with the Connecticut River Valley, the sisters traveled occasionally, working as far away as Maine and Quebec and taking their camera on tours of England, Scotland, and Wales in 1908, and to California in 1916. After about 1918, poor health and poorer eyesight began to take its toll. Frances did little photography after the First World War, although she continued to assist in the darkroom and with the business, and Mary's productivity slowed. They continued to sell prints until 1935, and after the flood of 1938, they appeared to have ceased operations entirely. The sisters, neither of whom married, died within four days of one another in February 1941.