Albert Arthur Allen – Untitled (192X)
Excluding the border, sepia tinge and interior design, this could from a modern image maker who took this last year and only got around to uploading it to Tumblr last week.
But this was made sometime during the 1920s by a man born in Massachusetts, who moved to the Bay Area and started shooting nudes.
In this way he was singular in focus and profligate in output.
The work is a bit of a chimera; words like ‘camp’ and ‘contrived’ pop up whenever Allen’s work is discussed–sadly the former obscures a more important feature, the latter perhaps misses a pertinent point.
Take the above, for example. At first, it strikes one as charmingly intimate and unselfconscious. Upon further examination: the composition mostly works. The relationship of the lens to the mise en scene is studied, carefully composed–the half of the plant in the lower left corner is great as is the reflection of the room in the mirror.
Yet, as one gazes, inconsistencies take on a sharper focus: why in the hell is her ankle hooked behind the leg of the chair; did the shutter fire mid-blink or is she half asleep? That’s entirely too much fabric to be a robe and why is it draped on the chair like that–is it an effort to rubber stamp Classical Ideal ™ bonafides?
And now, almost a century after the images were made–despite their sometimes clumsy habituation, they are still better than 95% of the stuff made by so-called Tumblr famous image makers who shoot nudes and nothing by nudes.
In fact: I think there’s an argument to be made that Allen is perhaps a better photographer than someone like David Hamilton–if for no other reason than at least Allen is honest and straight-forward and owns (for better or worse) his rote repetitions and foibles.
But the interesting question here is: by seeking to document a subject which has been tested–tried and true across the ages–as perennially of interest as a subject addressed by art, to what extent does surviving 100 years render a photograph less document and more art?
I’d argue that the continued interest in Allen’s work has less to do with the work itself and more to do with what the viewer might interpolate about the longevity of fine art nudes as a photographic genre based upon the work.
We want the work to be Capital-A Art because it suggests a degree of merit to the undertaking and in so doing we subtly fixate upon the charm to the diminution of the awkward.
And really, Allen’s work is better than 95% of the work by this or that Tumblr famous image maker–I mean at least he is compellingly conversant in art history and its considerations.
But I’m not sure that which makes his work enduring is something that should in any way be seen as a voice from beyond the grave legitimating these our most earnest of efforts.