About the Photographer
Harold Allen’s architectural photographs reveal peculiarities and trends in the style and ornamentation of American buildings. His view on the built environment also shows how such ornamentation can be linked to a much broader historical scope and meaning. Allen was fascinated by the use of ancient Egyptian motifs in American architectural practices of the 1930s and 1940s and he undertook a study of this subject by photographing structures that exhibited such influences. In each of his projects, he sought to document any and every manifestation of a theme, amassing a collection of common images rather than a single example of each. In his own estimation, Allen saw himself as a documentary photographer. As such, he was not as interested in experimenting with the materials of photography as he was interested in portraying every facet of his subject with sensitivity and accuracy. Whether Allen was drawn to architectural photography because of his documentary predilections, or whether he found the documentary style apt to his favorite architectural subjects, his photographs have come to exemplify a scholarly and artful approach to architectural photography.
Harold Allen was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912. After completing his high school education in Idaho, Allen left for Chicago in 1937 where he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute and majored in Industrial Design and Photography. Unable to pay for his education, Allen took a job at the Art Institute and began night classes at the Institute of Design (previously the New Bauhaus, later the School of Design, and presently the Illinois Institute of Technology). In 1941, before he had earned a degree, Allen was drafted into the service where he served as an Air Force Photographer. In a stroke of luck, though likely talent as well, Allen won a nine-week course in news and feature photography from the Life Magazine Photography School for the Armed Forces. Traveling with the Air Force, Allen was able to take time to photograph architectural structures in France, Germany, and England. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1946, Allen took up a study on Egyptian influence in American architecture and visual culture at the University of Chicago. The documentation of this project occupied several years of Allen’s life, and though he continued to produce photographs related to it for many years, the project is unfinished and has not yet been exhibited or published. Drawn to architecture as a subject matter, Allen also worked as a photographer for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Harold Allen was a part time teacher at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago from 1948 to 1960, began teaching there full time in 1966, and retired in 1977. The School of the Art Institute granted him an honorary Ph.D. in photography in 1979.