What you see: An image from The Model, Series No. 1, a 1925 portfolio of 15 photographs shot by Albert Arthur Allen. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Daile Kaplan, vice president and director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
What do we know about the photographer, Albert Arthur Allen? He was born in Grafton, Mass., in 1886, and his family moved to California in the early 20th century. Apparently, his father was a businessman in the maritime industry and a man of means. Allen was an artistic figure who relied on his family’s financial resources. As far as I know, he was fairly isolated and had no associations with other Bay Area artists. As a young man, Allen became interested in art and, by the late 1910s, was producing Pictorialist images—lovely photographs of young women in natural settings. Many were hand-colored, and the long-haired subjects have a fresh, natural appearance. By about 1919, he started photographing nude models in the studio, against a black backdrop. With the rise of the Roaring 20s, Allen’s aesthetic changed, and he began to shoot in residential and studio settings and also create fanciful tableaux, such as the ones we see in The Model. An entrepreneur, he sold his pictures via ads in newspapers and art publications. But sending nude studies through the mails, especially those in which women’s pubic hair was clearly visible, was illegal. Allen was the target of numerous suits and, by the end of the 1920s, went bankrupt.
The photo I’m using to illustrate the piece is the group of seven women in profile, six with their left hands on the shoulder of the woman in front of her. What, specifically, would a 1925 audience have found scandalous about this photo? What details that don’t jump out at us now would have scandalized viewers then? Sadly, we’re now living in a social and political period that illustrates the ways in which women are considered second-class citizens. In 1925, there was a more relaxed atmosphere in the U.S., one that fostered new cultural and artistic expressions. But the appearance of a nude female form was considered quite scandalous. In this picture, Allen has softly airbrushed the models’ pubic areas, but did not eliminate this “pornographic” feature. And the notion of women touching one another was certainly perceived as a Sapphic-like expression.
Sapphic-like? What made it Sapphic-like? Is it that the women are nude and touching each other–is that enough? Exactly, exactly. We have to look at the pictures from American social history–Puritan influences, Comstock influences. [Anthony Comstock was a U.S. postal inspector who championed a namesake law that made sending “obscene” material through the mail a crime.] These pictures, as innocent as they are to us, are very loaded.
How do these images exemplify 1920s beauty and style? The models’ shorter, more androgynous hairdos are the most visible sign of a 1920s liberated woman. And the slimmer body types also epitomize the “new woman.”
What jumped out at me was how normal these women look–not the super-thin models who predominate today. You’re right. They’re not the emaciated women of the last 10 to 15 years. They are curvaceous, and they have breasts. They’re active and healthy. Victorian women [by contrast] wore corsets and had full hips.
All of the women have short hair. Would all of their hairstyles have been described as “bobs” then? Are these women flappers? Yes and yes. My understanding is that “flapper” relates to a dance or performance, and these models are definitely active.
Was it legal for Allen to shoot these photos in California in 1925? It was legal for Allen to shoot these photographs, but it was illegal for him to utilize the U.S. Postal Service to convey them to clients.
How did he find seven young women who would agree to be photographed nude? Allen paid his models for their time and effort. I was told by a dealer of nude studies that, in some instances, some of these young women were pregnant. Finding work was challenging and modeling was an available occupation.
Do we know who any of the women are? None of the women are identified by name. Allen was more focused on representing “types,” and his other portfolios include loopy quasi-scientific texts in which he unsuccessfully attempts to articulate complex ideas associated with gender.
Beneath each woman in the photo there’s a letter, from A through G. Do we know what the letters mean? Does it reflect Allen’s attempt to represent “types” of women? I believe the letters may correspond to text information that’s not included in this particular portfolio.
Can we assume that the women had no input in the composition of any of the images—this is all Allen’s vision? My sense is that Allen was responsible for composing these marvelous tableaux. But given that he worked in California, it’s not unlikely that some of these models had experience in Hollywood or with dance troupes, and contributed ideas.
Did he shoot the images for Model, Series No. 1 in his Oakland, California studio prior to it burning down in 1925? There’s very little biographical information about Allen that has survived. When I was working on my book, I consulted with a number of Allen collectors, one of whom hired a detective to try to learn more about this colorful and mysterious figure. But I imagine he rented a theatre–note the size of the stage and the large backdrop.
Does the title Model, Series No. 1 imply that he intended to produce sequel portfolios, but never managed to do so? Allen was a grandiose figure with larger-than-life ambitions who innocently–and inadvertently–took on the conservative, political establishment. The legal actions were costly and time consuming. He did not manage the production of these portfolios with any business acumen or organizational skills. I imagine he intended to develop other versions of The Model, but as far as I know, he didn’t.
I understand Allen was indicted for sending obscene materials through interstate mail—would a copy of this portfolio have triggered those charges? Allen was drawing the ire and attention of federal authorities before this particular portfolio was photographed. Remember Comstock’s chastity law and America’s Puritan origins? Well, despite the cultural shift and appearance of free women in the 1920s, these repressive precepts continued to dictate social mores.
Some suggest that Allen’s work is seen as campy now. Do you agree? What makes it campy? Some of the pictures may conform to the idea of camp, which is seen as bad taste. But my perspective is that Allen was positing interesting forms of photographic representation that are still valid. Allen’s artistic program falls apart in his so-called scientific analysis, introducing terms like “sexine,” and attempting to formulate correspondences between body types and personality traits. He wasn’t an Edward Weston, but his sensibility certainly corresponds to someone like William Mortensen, the most popular photographer of the 1930s.
Erm, what does “sexine” mean? It’s a word he invented. It seems to be some obscure concept he had to characterize a woman who was not a virgin, but had not had children. Was it a sense of purity? I don’t know. But it was something odd.
Do we know how many of these portfolios were made, and how many survive? Unfortunately, Allen did not edition his portfolios or maintain records of the number of portfolios he sold.
How often does The Model, Series No. 1 come up with all 15 photos in place? How many have you handled? This portfolio is offered every few years; it’s rare to find a suite with the entire 15 photographs. The last time Swann offered a complete set was in 2009, when it sold for $3,600. Swann has handled four copies, one of which contained 10 prints, since 2001.
What is the auction record for The Model, Series No. 1? $8,400, which was realized on October 15, 2007.
What condition is this copy in? Excellent. Clearly, the images were respected and well-taken-care-of. They weren’t handled a lot. But I want to back up and give you background on the folio. It was consigned by a woman whose great-grandfather collected this material. When family members come to us after discovering nude photos, there’s a kind of shock that they readily, openly convey to us that grandfather had this in the attic. There was no Playboy magazine in 1925. There weren’t any magazines that depicted male and female nudes except nudist magazines. Where did collectors get them? Allen advertised in the printed matter you’d see in barber shops or mens’ clubs.
Might that explain why we don’t know how many copies Allen made of The Model, Series No. 1? Maybe it wasn’t in his best interest to keep accurate records of how many he printed? Perhaps at a certain point he was advised to destroy his records. The legal battle went on and on. It’s possible he intentionally didn’t keep records.
Why will this portfolio stick in your memory? Of Allen’s various projects, I would deem this particular portfolio the most successful. These particular images are fun and celebratory and epitomize the spirit of the Roaring 20s. The photographs depict women who are comfortable in their bodies, have an athletic verve, and are enjoying one another. There’s also the obvious correspondence between photography and cinema, an interdisciplinary dialog that’s culturally rich.
Daile Kaplan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about an exceptional circa 1921 print of Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic, a record-setting Edward Curtis portrait of the Oglala Lakota leader, Red Cloud, and a print of Harold Edgerton’s Milk Drop Coronet.
Kaplan’s 2001 book on Albert Arthur Allen’s nudes, Premiere Nudes, is available at the Strand book store and other independent booksellers.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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