Harold Allen: American Modernist
at Ehlers Caudill, through
By Fred Camper
The buildings in Harold Allen's photographs have a preternatural solidity. His intense grays and blacks make wood and stone tactile; his subjects are framed dynamically for maximum impact. Whatever structure he's shooting, whether Stonehenge or a modest American home, it seems to strain against the limits of the frame and of the photographic paper, achieving a heightened realism that celebrates the subject's physical presence.
Allen, who's had a long career, calls himself "an art historian who took a lot of photographs." But there's nothing dilettantish about his prints. He understands better than most documentary photographers that, as Andre Bazin once said of film, realism can be attained only through artifice. Composing images with great care, he chooses the precise angle that will make the subject loom most vividly, avoiding the direct views of a naive documentarian in which the subject seems a butterfly mounted in a case. The head-on views he does offer always contain an element that deflects one's gaze, bringing the photograph to life.
Allen, whose exhibit at Ehlers Caudill includes work from 1944 to 1984 (another exhibit opened recently at Prospectus), recalls an early attraction to art. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1912, he wanted to be an artist from earliest childhood and remembers his father, a streetcar conductor, bringing home old advertising posters for him to draw on. During World War I his father worked in a Portland shipyard, and Allen recalls the camouflage patterns on ships--replicated on his father's lunch box--as his first experience of abstract designs. "It was very impressive to see these ships," he told me, "because they were so big--bigger than buildings--yet covered with colors."
After the war, the family moved to Blackfoot, Idaho, where there wasn't much art. Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages, which Allen found in the public library, proved a key influence, leading him to Chicago in 1937 to enroll at the School of the Art Institute, where Gardner taught. (Gardner commissioned some of Allen's early photographs for the 1946 edition of her book.) In 1948 Allen began studying art history at the University of Chicago and also began teaching at the School of the Art Institute, where he taught (with a six-year hiatus in the 60s) until his retirement in 1977. He also studied at the School of Design in Chicago (formerly known as the New Bauhaus) with Gyorgy Kepes and recalls being especially impressed by a Moholy-Nagy exhibit of mechanized sculpture: "When these objects moved, the patterns they made on the wall moved too. I went to the opening, and he gave a talk which I never forgot--he talked about the expressive possibilities of lighting, how photographers should use controlled lighting that does something important aesthetically." Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Minor White were also important aesthetic influences.
Allen carefully controls the light in his photos, both by selecting the right moment and manipulating the printing. Yet instead of making the highlights and shadows seem abstract patterns imposed on the subject--as a New Bauhaus photographer might have--he makes them integral to the wood or stone itself, an effect he often achieves in printing: "I've never made a negative that couldn't be improved by dodging"--that is, altering the exposure in different parts of the image, partly to ensure that details in the dark and bright areas aren't lost. But also, he says, "The meaning of the photograph demands that important parts of it shouldn't be too light or too dark." And in fact his rich panoply of midrange tones is almost joyous; his oeuvre is a song of praise to the physical substance of buildings and to the light that makes it visible.
The viewer participates in this praise by following the dynamic pathways Allen has created for the eye in his compositions. The high-angle view of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado (1949) emphasizes the mass of the huge cliffs under which these famous Native American dwellings were constructed; the eye is led downward toward them. In Branching Stairway, Wells Cathedral (1944) Allen's composition suggests the larger structure of the building: a head-on view of a stairway is disrupted in midground by another stairway branching off to the right, suggesting other divergent paths. In the diagonal view of Column Figures, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (1945) a line of four saints recedes into the background, deemphasizing the individual figures and calling attention to the cathedral's larger spaces. In Mormon Temple Tower, St. George, Utah (1954) we see only the peak of what is obviously a large building; tilting the camera back slightly reminds the viewer that there's much more to be seen beneath the tower. In the head-on view of Jaguar on Toltec Pyramid, Tula, Mexico (1950), random splotches on the decaying carved figure modify its forcefulness.
The effect of these deflected angles and other qualifications is to create a less than worshipful relationship with the subject: this stairway isn't the only one; this stone jaguar is subject to the ravages of time. Allen is clearly photographing things that he loves, and he makes that love visible, but the object is always placed within the larger world rather than presented as an icon, the alpha and omega of culture. In Allen's democratic vision, a beautiful building is not a high-culture absolute but part of a continuum of beautiful things. That's why he photographs earthbound Native American dwellings with the same love as the cathedral of Notre Dame; that's why many of his later photographs are of anonymous, architecturally undistinguished structures, which come alive before his lens.
Schoolhouse, Virginia City, Nevada (1952) shows a big old wooden building from the side; since it nearly fills the frame, only a bit of the surrounding land is visible. But the little patch of ground we can see in front slopes down to the right. The building, rising straight up from this incline, has an assertive character independent of the land, especially since the photograph's borders are aligned with the building's edges. The surface of the schoolhouse is a little symphony of grays, of sun and shadow, and it contains such modest but elegant ornaments as small arches above the windows that give it a unique personality. Allen told me he realized early on that he was not a portraitist, in part because he "hates people"; this building, though, has an appealingly human character.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Mormon Temple Tower, St. George, Utah" by Harold Allen.