photographer, was born in New York City to Virginia Allen, a dressmaker who migrated from the British Virgin Islands in 1900, and an unidentified father. James attended Dewitt Clinton High School, where he discovered photography through the school's camera club, the Amateur Cinema League. The school was fertile ground for several members of the upcoming Harlem Renaissance, including the poet Countee Cullen, whose first published piece appeared in the school magazine, the Magpie. The artist Charles Alston also developed his talents as the art editor for the Magpie and leader of...
photographer, was born in New York City to Virginia Allen, a dressmaker who migrated from the British Virgin Islands in 1900, and an unidentified father. James attended Dewitt Clinton High School, where he discovered photography through the school's camera club, the Amateur Cinema League. The school was fertile ground for several members of the upcoming Harlem Renaissance, including the poet Countee Cullen, whose first published piece appeared in the school magazine, the Magpie. The artist Charles Alston also developed his talents as the art editor for the Magpie and leader of the art club. In 1923 Allen began a four-year apprenticeship at Stone, Van Dresser and Company, a white-owned illustration firm, where he received additional instruction in photography. Louis Collins Stone, the firm's owner and a portrait painter, and his wife seem to have taken a personal interest in Allen and in nurturing black talent. The writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent also spent part of his adolescence in New York City, attended Dewitt Clinton, and was employed by this firm.Following graduation from high school in 1925 Allen embarked on a career as an artist-photographer. With the support of patrons like Alain Leroy Locke and Carl Van Vechten, Allen opened a portrait studio at 213 West 121st Street in 1927 and quickly became the photographer of choice for the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. With subjects including Alston, Cullen, Aaron Douglas, W.—E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Locke, Harold Jackman, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Hall Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Rose McClendon, Claude McKay, Louise Thompson Patterson, Paul Robeson, Joel Augustus Rogers, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Edna Lewis Thomas, Van Vechten, and A'Lelia Walker, Allen's roster of clients makes up the most comprehensive visual record of Harlem's cultural elite by an African American photographer. Carl Van Vechten, who was white, began his extensive body of photographs in 1932.Allen created a visual image of the New Negro—the modern, urban, sophisticated, well-educated African American who exemplified the best that the race had to offer and refuted the claims of black inferiority that sustained white supremacist beliefs and Jim Crow policy. In his images well-groomed, well-dressed African American men and women posed in front of a simple gray backdrop are elegantly displayed as testaments to African American talent and achievement. Inscriptions on many of the photographic prints indicate that these portraits not only were meant for private display but also were exchanged between members of Harlem's social circles. The photographs seemed to have functioned as mutually reaffirming talismans of shared ideals and purpose in a world hostile to African American equality. This compelling vision was also deployed to promote the New Negro ideal among a national audience. Allen's portraits and his commercial images were consistently published in the leading Negro periodicals of the day, such as the Crisis, Opportunity, and the Messenger. Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, featured Allen's photographs on their cover sixteen times between 1934 and 1942. His images provided a model of the New Negro that black leaders encouraged all African Americans to emulate.Allen also enjoyed considerable recognition as a fine artist. He was one of four photographers who competed for the William E. Harmon Foundation Awards for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes established in 1926. The annual exhibition (1927–1931, 1933, and 1935) of submissions in the fine arts category was the chief venue open to African American artists. In 1930 Allen was awarded the Commission on Race Relations Prize for Photographic Work from the Harmon Foundation. This was a special award established that year specifically to honor photography. Allen won this prize again in 1931 and 1933. He was the only photographer included in the film A Study of Negro Artists produced by the foundation in 1934. Allen was featured in other key exhibitions, including the Exhibition of Young Negro Artists in 1927, An Exhibition of Negro Art in 1935 at the Harlem YMCA, and the Exhibition of Fine Arts Productions by American Negroes, Hall of Negro Life, Texas Centennial in 1936 in Dallas. In 1930 he received a solo show, An Exhibition of Portraits by James L. Allen (A Group of New Portraits) at the Hobby Horse, a Harlem bookstore and café located at 113 West 136th Street.With the onset of the Great Depression, Allen supplemented his income by taking photographs for the Harmon Foundation and the Harlem Art Workshop, thus producing an important archive of artworks and portraits of artists at work in their studios. He was employed as an instructor at the WPA-funded Harlem Community Art Center founded by the sculptor Augusta Savage in 1937. His documentation of activities there allowed Allen to work exclusively as a photographer and to maintain a studio, which he relocated to 2138 Seventh Avenue and then to 1858 Seventh Avenue until 1944.Allen appears to have enlisted in World War II and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., where because of his prior experience he was tasked with processing film taken for intelligence purposes. Allen married around this time and never resumed his career as a photographer. He remained in Washington, working as a civil servant. When he died his personal archive was destroyed by his wife, who did not approve of his early profession. Surviving photographs by Allen can be found in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and the Harmon Foundation Collection at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Allen, along with other photographers of his generation, reinvented the iconography of blackness and established a modern black aesthetic that symbolized the racial pride that African Americans felt during the interwar period.
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