Harold Allen was born in Portland, Oregon, June 29, 1912. He attended the first grade there before moving with his family to Blackfoot, Idaho. Inspired by Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which he found in the Blackfoot Public Library, Allen’s desire was to go to art school. After graduating from high school in 1930, he worked for seven years on hay and cattle ranches in Idaho and Wyoming to save money for school. He was intent on studying with Miss Gardner and becoming a painter. In 1937 at the age of 25 he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Miss Gardner taught classes in art history. Allen flourished at the School, eventually majoring in industrial design, but also studying photography. Interrupting his studies during his third year in order to earn money, he worked at the Art Institute museums an assistant to Meyric Rogers, Curator of the Decorative Arts Department. He also moonlighted once a month installing shows in the Katherine Kuh Gallery, which was the premier Modern Art gallery in Chicago. At this time Allen took a night course in photography at the School of Design in Chicago (later the Institute of Design), then the most forward-looking graphic arts school in Chicago. It was there he learned about lighting and design from his photo-lighting teacher, Gyorgy Kepes, and from the director of the school, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Allen was drafted in 1941, before he could complete his degree. Having already studied photography, Allen serve das an Army Air Force photographer and photo lab chief at Selfridge Field, Michigan. The following year he was awarded a nine-week course in photojournalism at the LIFE Magazine Photo School for the Armed Forces in New York City. Sent to England in 1943, he was appointed photo lab chief at the combined headquarters of USSAFE (United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe) and SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force). These groups were located in a suburb of London and it was here, on his days off, that Allen began photographing English cathedrals, thus beginning a lifelong interest in documenting architecture. Late in 1944, the photo lab was moved to a suburb of Paris where Allen continued to photograph architecture at Versailles and Fontainebleau.
Upon his return to Chicago in 1946, Allen worked on the revision for the third edition of the book he had first read in Blackfoot, Idaho, and then studied at the School of the Art Institute, Art Through The Ages. Miss Gardner was famous for having written the first one-volume history of art while teaching art history at the School in 1926. The book became an influential textbook and a best seller. By 1946, Miss Gardner’s health had been failing, and she was a year behind with the revision. Allen knew Miss Gardner through his studies with her at SAIC, and upon his return from the Army she requested his help with the completion of the third edition. She died in June 1946, prior to its completion. The responsibility for preparing the book for press fell largely on Allen. Allen’s work on the third edition included: assembling dozens of illustrations for the enlarged book; making many photographs, drawings and diagrams; proofreading both gallery and page proofs; and eventually making the book “dummy,” a skeleton copy of the book on which the format is laid out according to the designer’s specifications. Finishing this work in 1948, Allen continued part-time work in the Oriental Department at the Art Institute, caring for the Japanese print collection and installing exhibitions.
In this same year, Allen was able, as a result of the G.I. Bill, to enroll in the University of Chicago to study the history of art. Allen had already decided what he wanted to concentrate on for his thesis subject: “King Tut’s Impact on American Art.” Allen began exploring what was to become his passion in life, the recurring popularity of Egyptian motifs in the fine arts and popular culture, a phenomenon now known as Egyptomania.
This was the beginning of Allen’s research of the Egyptian Revival Style in American architecture.* Allen spent most of his summers during this time traveling and camping throughout the United States with his companion Paul Pearson. They traveled to many cities in the United States and even to Mexico in order to document local architecture and specifically Egyptian-style buildings. At the same time Allen began teaching photography part-time at SAIC. In 1960, he left SAIC to concentrate on his studies. During the summers of 1964 and 1965, Allen served as photographer for the Historic American Buildings Survey, Chicago Project. He returned to SAIC in 1966 as a full-time instructor, having never received his degree from the University of Chicago. He nevertheless continued to take courses and pursue his academic research. In 1971, Allen was named the Frederick Latimer Wells Professor at SAIC.
Allen returned from SAIC in 1977, and in 1979 SAIC awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.
In December of 1970 Allen married the immensely talented artist Maria Enriquez. He vigorously promoted Maria’s work, documenting and researching her exhibitions and accomplishments. Allen was intent on publishing a book of her work, but that dream has not been realized, and the book remains unpublished. IN 1972, the Good Lion Press of SAIC published Allen’s book, Father Ravalli’s Missions, which included photographs and text documenting two early Indian mission churches in Idaho and Montana, both designed by an influential and talented Jesuit missionary, Antonio Ravalli. IN 1984, the museum of the Art Institute organized the retrospective exhibition and catalogue Harold Allen: Photographer and Teacher. To accompany the exhibition, works by twenty-five of Allen’s students were installed in adjoining spaces.
In 1994 Allen was honored by SAIC with the dedication of the fifth floor of the Wolberg Residence Hall in his name. The “Harold Allen House,” as it is known, will forever remind students of a gifted teacher with a remarkable empathy for his students, who taught that technique and aesthetics are inseparable. Harold Allen Died on January 31, 1998.
Written for the exhibition Unparalleled Lives: Harold Allen and Edgar Hellum At the Betty Rymer Gallery, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, August 27 – October 27, 1999. Dietrich was co-curator of the exhibition and executor of the Harold Allen estate.
Note: In 2013 a memorial for Allen was installed at Graceland Cemetery.
* Allen would often bristle at the term “Egyptian Revival,” noting that the it wasn’t a “revival” style, as the style had been continuous and had never gone away, and was thus was not technically a revival. Lisa Stone, 2013.