Jules Allen Photography--The Contemporary Scene

In tribute to the ongoing spirit of the historic vitality of the best tradition of street photography, I would like to dedicate this blog to the work of photographer Jules Allen (born 1947 in San Francisco, California). 

As much as I love to rummage through archival photography done by photographers who have come and gone, it is particularly inspirational to remember that there is still important work being done today by photographers who prefer to celebrate the lives of others rather than themselves.

In celebration of Jules Allen's fabulous new website, making widely available to fans of his photography for the very first time a sufficiently broad range of his work at http://www.julesallenphotography.com, I am including here as well the text of a piece I wrote about Allen's photographs taken in Bamako and Conakry.

Jules Allen’s Photographs

By Michele Wallace
(Friday, September 26, 2003)

“Society never makes a man. It destroys him. What we see never fits what we say. The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”

Jean-Luc Godard

Why do we continue to need photographs anyway? More to the point, why do we continue to long to see photographs we haven’t yet seen? What is it we’re trying to find? In our current environment of globalization, digitalization, cell phones and satellites, what possible use could we have for another photograph? The answers lie in two words: aesthetics and information.
I suspect a lot of us have realized for some time now that Jules Allen makes very special photographs. For years he has kept his audience on a starvation diet, desperate to see more than we ever get to see. Yet despite this deprivation, his afficionados know his photographs the instant we see them by his unprecedented combination of sleek Modernist compositional wizardry with this ruthless insistence on plainly presenting the real material conditions of people’s lives wherever he finds them—on the streets of Harlem, in a boxing gym, among nudes in the studio, or, as in this case, in the streets and back alleys of Bamako and Conakry.
You see Allen has the listening eye that Godard speaks of. The capacity for the listening eye marks almost every great black and white photograph of street life in the 20th century with an inexorable rhythm, as though the shadows, despite their apparent stillness, were dancing with the pulse of the city. Many of Allen’s favorite street photographers—Manuel Alvaro Bravo, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Roy De Carava—all had it. Everything, every texture, every accident of weather or materials or light becomes crucial to the vision. The situation requires that the photographer make his decision of where the shot is in an instant. In order to do this, an infallible eye is necessary. I will say it again: an eye that listens.
Allen has that eye, or has trained himself to have that eye or to perfect that eye during his many years of patiently taking pictures wherever it seemed likely that he might stumble upon the truth of the juxtaposition of light and human existence. He is now at a point where his pictures speak volumes, tell stories, reassuring us that life isn’t anywhere near as bad as you may have been tempted to think it is.
I worry that Jules Allen and I and others our age are part of the last generation to learn to think completely in black and white film, that the younger ones can not fathom what the play of light and dark, and shadows, the translation of black skin into the rich tapestry of shadows of black and white film meant to us, and continues to mean to us. And that this discipline, which was forced upon us by black and white film (photography, advertising, film and tv) made us strong, and smart and resilient in ways they can scarcely imagine. It may be because in the context of such a ruthless hierarchy of light dark, blackness and darkness were so transparently the best possible thing to be from the standpoint of aesthetics. The blues on the one hand, the sublime on the other.
Perhaps even more essential to we blacks in the U.S. than the aesthetic visions such photography supports is the raw, unmediated information about the world we don’t yet sufficiently understand. Allen prides himself on surprising the life that lies just around every corner. These photographs are telling us at least one hundred very concrete things about that which we may think we already know but don’t know nearly well enough, the urban streets of a contemporary African Muslim city such as Bamako or Conakry.
I have never been to either place and yet through Allen’s images, I feel as though I have been prepared in ways that I could never gather from any other source. Of the 25 photos, I would divide them into three groups. They are all about people who are not being portrayed as foreign or exotic or distant in any way. Several of the pictures focus on small groups, several more focus on large groups and another set focuses on single figures, albeit there is frequently at least one other blurry figure in the background.
Among the small groups, there is the shot of the Ballet Africains dancers having an unguarded moment of relaxation at the stage’s edge, reminding me of Degas’ reposing ballet dancers of a century ago. One of the African dancers lies on her back, her feet dangling luxuriously over the edge.
There is another image of a few women in dresses trying to get past two men who are kneeling in a back courtyard with clothes hanging from the lines and a large industrial—looking well, from which they get their water. This is another kind of historical moment altogether from the Reuters, Times and BBC images from which we are usually asked to cull our information of the African continent.
There is another courtyard with hanging clothes, women cooking in the background at outdoor grills, a faucet dispensing water into a metal teapot being held by the hands of a man, his face blocked by the dangling clothes. He wears a watch on one wrist, and a wedding finger on his other hand.
A sexualized little girl stands among a small group in a courtyard, reminding us once again that the status of boys and girls is different in this society, and that the sex industry could be part of this little girl’s future.

My favorite image is of 2 slender fishing boats, fragile canoe-like structures, anchored side by side in the still water of the Niger River. Although there are no people in it, this picture too is about the people.
In another group photo, there are 4 males, 2 bodies, their beautiful chests, hairless and perfect like the finest ebony wood. They are laughing, playing perhaps, in a moment grabbed from the teeth of their workday to love each other.
A woman smiles in the background of a market scene through a group of men in the foreground too busy to notice that they are being observed in profile.
Everywhere we see little girls with wise, sad musical faces.
These pictures tell stories even as their abstraction compels us to see the organization of the shadows and of things that are not there. Allen always draws our attention to the actual conditions under which people are living, not by focusing on poverty but, nonetheless, with no chance to romanticize the surroundings or to misunderstand the critical lack of modern resources.

What is really fabulous in these photos is the edges, how the outer frame supports the center of the frame in terms of composition. Until you could almost say what the photo says, as though it was on the tip of your tongue. That is, of course, if it were say-able, which it is not.
There are the shots that focus on single figures, for instance, a head of a beautiful woman juxtaposed with the reflection of leaves in the glass of a car windshield. Then there are the large groups, among them two scenes on the beach. The first of boys playing in silhouette against the dusk, a mirror image of Thomas Eakin’s “The Watering Hole” for sensuality and masculine pleasure. Then there is the more distant shot of a group of men working, struggling perhaps with a fishing net on the beach as the sun comes up.
There is the congestion of the women in the market, their bodies swaddled in layers of clothe in the heat, their backs bent over in industry. There is also the stunning image of workers in a sculpture workshop where the fragments of sculptures look exactly like a pile of bones. Everything looks like at least like two or three different things, one of them always from some other world and not strictly capable of being put into words. These photographs leave you wanting more. Much more.


1 comment:

Barrie said...

stunning writing by Michele Wallace about Jules Allen's iconic photography, a great match, thank you both. Barrie Karp

About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.