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The untold story of Albert Arthur Allen
New insights into the pioneer photographer’s life and work, and his forgotten impact on American nudism
Albert Arthur Allen was born in 1886 in Grafton, Massachusetts and traveled around the region for his post-primary school education up until 1903. He claimed he was learning the science and art that would help him in the future. He learned animation at a trade school. Then his family moved to Oakland, California. He was suffering with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and in 1904, during a remission, he had a serious bicycle accident. He was a painter of nudes and experimenting with photography. He once submitted a painting to the San Francisco World’s Fair art exhibit of nudes in 1915.
Allen put down his paintbrush, perhaps due to his RA, and started taking photos in about 1916. His focus was on the fully nude female in nature. He opened a studio in Oakland in 1917. He began circulating his photos in small books to subscribers who were located all over the US. Allen might have used the early nudist Common Sense Club directory as a starting list for his subscribers and offered photos of females in nature. By 1922 he traveled around CA taking photographs of renowned locations, transitioning the basic pictographic recording of a scene on film into an art form with carefully crafted images. He was also doing this with his figure photography. He developed his studio images of the female form with significant investments in advanced lighting and settings.
Photography historian Daile Kaplan wrote in Premiere Nudes, 2001:
“By introducing models with hirsute pubic areas, Allen entered perilous uncharted territory. Unbeknownst to him, the hyper-realistic element of body hair (armpit hair was still unthinkable to the American commercial artist and fashion maven) resulted in a culturally biased transmogrification of the female body. With the figure studies in The Boudoir, Allen transformed an object of timeless beauty into an all-too-real subject.
“In the post-World War I era, no single American photographer explored the nude as consistently, or with such dramatic consequences, as Allen himself.”
Allen wrote in 1923: “To see womankind entirely nude would place all women [in] equality and it would be only their true mental and physical charm that would lift them above the ordinary.”
By 1923 Allen’s RA had damaged his hip joint to the point it was fused and that left him crippled and required crutches to walk for the rest of his life.
Obscenity indictments & filmmaking foray
In 1924, Allen was twice indicted for sending obscene material through the US mail as well as with a private carrier. In 1925 fire destroyed his studio and he was indicted for the third time for distributing obscene materials.
In a total of four legal cases with a total of 19 counts regarding sending obscene materials in 14 separate publications across state lines, he was found not guilty for all save one.
Forbidden Daughters is viewable online via The Internet Archive.
For well over a decade, starting in about 1916 as the earliest copyrighted images are dated, Allen was photographing nude women in full frontal poses that revealed their pubic hair or vulva cleft if depilated. The repeated court cases concluded that the materials were not obscene for the publications that had images of nude women in nature, in their bath, in the bedroom, and in classic group settings even while touching each other. He successfully mailed booklets of these photos all over the USA for nearly a decade.
Case #21072 included a second count for Nude Follies 1928, for which he was indicted in 1929; the nude models were dressed in suggestive high heels, were sent through American Railroad Express Company; violated Sec. 245 of Civil Code of the U.S. For this he was found guilty of sending obscenity across state lines. In September 1930, a bond of $5,000 was set and six months in jail was ordered, albeit ten days later the sentence was commuted to a $1,200 fine and six months’ probation. This commutation may have been a result of his being crippled with RA. On March 23, 1931, his probation ended.
He established another studio and moved away from costumes but started a new endeavor. In 1930 Exotic Nudes was Allen’s next step to moving toward his objective of photographing females, males, and children from other nations and races. He wrote: “I have relied upon the natural impulse of each model in selecting the pose most characteristic. I have aimed towards simplicity, truth and freedom—the Brown race seems to have lent itself most pleasingly to this end.”
By the mid-1930s and after the roaring 20s, female nudes were becoming more accepted in fine art as well as in American culture, thanks in part to Allen’s impact as a fine art photographer—an impact for which he is still remembered to this day. However, almost forgotten was his pioneering work to help establish one of the earliest American nudist clubs west of the Mississippi River.
Allen’s forgotten nudist legacy
In 1934, Allen’s address was used for the Delian League, as it advertised for individuals interested in forming a nudist club. In 1935, Allen contributed his professional skills in creating the photographs and text for the booklet Elysium aka Elysium Foundation of California Under the Leadership of George Marcellus Spray, and classified it as a semi-annual publication of the corporation, albeit appears only this first one was ever produced.
Allen continued with his third person writing style, but now putting George Spray out in front of Allen’s own ideas. The booklet, which was sent to interested inquirers to the ads placed in regional newspapers, offered an overview of social nudism, what was expected from participants, as well as the costs for membership and even a la carte food items available in the dining room. These were sent far and wide and contained photos of social nudity.
Allen also appeared during the bankruptcy legal proceedings of the Elysium Foundation in 1938. While Allen was an initial investor, he called himself a founder, he was not one of the three incorporators of the Foundation. Allen was able to produce a receipt for the $5,000 he had been repaid for his initial financial support, and so was not liable for any of the subsequent bad credit. In 2023, that up-front money would be valued at nearly $110,000. The Elysium Foundation died, but the property continued for nudist use and today is Lupin Lodge Naturist Resort.
Over a hundred years from his first professional photographic sessions with fully nude women in natural settings, Allen is regarded as a pioneer in photography as an art form, as a hero for challenging and winning initial lawsuits about what constitutes obscene materials, as well as the ability to send through the interstate mail or private carrier such images.
In addition to this known legacy, Albert Arthur Allen can now be also rightfully regarded as a founder—conceptionally, materially, and fiscally—of the longest running nudist resort in California. Allen likely could also be a link to the Common Sense Club, thus giving roots to Lupin Lodge that go back to 1919. Even with RA that left him crippled, Allen achieved a full life of accomplishments. Allen disappeared from public accounts and died 25 January 1962 in Alameda County. Allen’s photography, advocacy, and editorial voice were consistent in promoting cultural acceptance of the diversity of the human form as it exists in nature, nudism. 🪐