Fleur and the Photographer

She is nude and I adore her – always have, always will. I don’t really know her and we’ve never spoken – except for in my imagination. I know nothing about her apart from her name – and even that may be a furphy. My relationship with her has been longer than any other I have had with a woman – she’s been with me for decades. It was commenced so long in the past I now have only the vaguest memory of the occasion of our first contact.

I know our eyes first locked through a window, although I suspect mine were quickly drawn to her other attributes – for even back then she was unclad, the hussy. She came into my world disrobed and so she remains. We have shared quite a few bedrooms since that day and I can safely say that my regard for her has never diminished, despite the time we have been together. She would have seen me at my lowest, at my happiest and perhaps even at my most triumphant. She would never let on about all of that as she’s my trusted keeper of secrets.

Fleur is a framed image of an unclothed maiden, aged in her early twenties I would judge. She is posed naked in a sitting position with only some judiciously placed gauzy material across her lap. She is holding a hairbrush and wears some pieces of period bling. Where I purchased her I have no recall – only that I espied her through some shop plate glass. I figure she has been with me for at least half my life.

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Countless times I have looked at Fleur and speculated on her story. Who was she? What enticed her to be posing nude. Who was her photographer? The initials JA do appear in one corner as a clue. When exactly was her image transferred onto paper? To me she could be Edwardian or a lass of the Jazz Age. I don’t have the intimate knowledge of historical accoutrements to decide on that. Perhaps it is the former due to her luxurious locks and she does not have the slim form favoured by the later period – but that is pure supposition. Was she French, given that they were the trend setters in the early decades of last century in the post-card trade featuring such beauties posing dishabille? It was a good little earner for photographers back then. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking, being the francophile that I am. If not, what nationality then? So much to discover about her, so little to go on!

Not so long ago I made a foray onto Google to see if I could ‘uncover’ any clues as to her provenance, using the various meagre clues her portraiture gave. This was to no avail despite the various combinations of wording I used. I will not be beaten. I will make future attempts. If worst comes to worst, I will endeavour to write a fictional account and entrust it to my blog. Stay tuned.

Although the datasphere didn’t throw any light on Fleur, I must admit I made a few discoveries that piqued my interest enough to delve a little deeper. One of these was happening across one A A Allen. What an interesting fellow – and what a life he led! Of course there is a link to my lady in this as he was in the habit of photographing the young women of his day in the same way as per Fleur.

Of course this was not unusual, for as long as there has been a camera the photographing of the fairer gender in various stages of disrobing wasn’t unheard of. For the first decades of my passion’s existence, as photographic techniques gradually became more sophisticated, this practice was largely ‘underground’ in response to the Victorian mores of the time. It was mainly for prurient purposes akin to, I suppose, today’s much more accessible internet porn. But there were some photographers who took the higher ground, believing their work to be an art form in itself. After all, nudity in painting, illustration and sculpture was perfectly acceptable under the guise of art, so why not in their line of work or hobby? I think our A A would have probably have had a foot in both camps.

For his purposes he had two factors going for him. History is somewhat vague about him but we do know he was independently wealthy – his rich parents supporting him through the early stages of his ‘career’. We know he spent today’s equivalent of a couple of million dollars setting himself up with the necessary gear and studio to carry out his business. What he produced he could not openly sell despite society, by the time this New Englander had made his way to California in 1921, becoming less morally rigid. It all worked on subscription, sort of like receiving ‘Playboy’ through the post, with one difference – if he was caught doing so he was in deep do-do. So with his private income and his subscribers he had the necessary dosh to hire models to do his bidding. His other ‘asset’ was, that as a result of a motorcycle accident, he was severely disfigured and was unable to move freely (although we do know he produced at least one child.) Maybe his subjects felt ‘safe’ in his presence because of his lasting injuries. And of course in the twenties nudity was starting to become acceptable in the silent movies of the era. For an ambitious wannabe actress, disrobing was often not a place too far. Think the lustrous Louise Brooks. This all ties in as well to the end of the Great War. Although not as pronounced as elsewhere, the void left by the doughboys heading off to Flanders was filled by women doing the work of men, giving them a freedom unheard of in previous decades. Once the soldiers returned it was all expected to revert to normal, except that many of the fairer sex quite liked their new found liberties. With the males again in the ascendency in the workforce, how was a girl of her times to support herself? Across the world many were drawn to the glamour centres where the risque side of life held sway, places such as Paris or Berlin. For America California and its burgeoning entertainment industry was the place to make one’s name. Anyway, for whatever reason, A A had the means to convince numerous girls to partake in his fantasies, often in multiple numbers. He chose a certain type, all slim with a twenties bob, even training them in what we would now call a ‘boot camp’ manner so his girls would possess his desired physical form for his tableaux. At one stage he proposed to produce moving pictures of his belles as well, but as the thirties approached and the Depression bit his plans fell through – and then there was soon the obstacle of the Hayes Code as the puritans regained the upper hand.

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As the times started to clamp down on his dreams, so Mr Allen starts to slip from view. He had felt that the 1930s would be his decade, a time when, weather permitting, even the average Joe and Josephine would go about their daily tasks unfettered by the limitations of clothing. Instead his business collapsed as he found himself in hot water with the authorities for daring to send what the law termed ‘obscene material’ through the mail. The only sign of A A was that occasionally his name would pop up as a snapper for early naturist magazines. He passed away in 1962, much of his vast output lost forever.

These days what remains has been reassessed and now exhibitions of his oeuvre have been presented. Slowly old A A is coming in from the cold. His work is adjudged to have a contemporary feel because it wasn’t retouched, as was the common practice in his day. He believed in total honesty with what he was portraying. Of course, if nudity does not offend, you may decide for yourselves on the veracity of this with a simple insertion of his name into a search engine to provide galleries of his work

Of course it would be drawing a long bow to think the paths of my Fleur and A A Allen crossed. It would be too much of a coincidence to think she was one of the subjects he trained so rigorously to feature in his various series of images. Fleur remains on my wall in my man cave – and she will always have a home with me. And I’ll continue to be ever-wondering about her. Her story will be told – one way or another!

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