Jules Allen: His Own Sweet Way

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by Clymenza Hawkins

Jules Allen does not identify as an artist. He is a photographer. Born in San Francisco, the eldest of three children, he was nurtured to appreciate “life, timing, style and grace.” At the age of 18, Allen saw two photographs that shaped his destiny – the first, an 8×10 black and white photo of himself and the second, a portrait of Gordon Parks.

“He was handsome and dashing, with that big moustache, shearling coat with the collar turned up. When I found out he was a photographer, that’s when I decided I wanted to be like him, a photographer—and nothing else!”

The fascination led Allen to darkroom classes at the San Francisco’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation and later to California State, earning a BA in Fine Arts. He studied with Jack Welpott, who’d been a protégé of both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. By 19, Allen was wielding a 35-milimeter Pentax Spotmatic (later, a Leica – his favorite – because, “…it’s small, sharp and pretty.) While serving in Vietnam, he got early experience in real action photography. After returning home, he earned a Masters in Clinical Counseling Psychology and was employed as a psychiatric social worker in San Francisco’s criminal justice system.

Allen later relocated to New York City and earned an MFA from Hunter College, where he studied with Roy DeCarava. “He was the first photographer to talk about the need to define oneself in an oppressed culture,” Allen recalls, “and that clarity is an essential element in redefining oneself on one’s own terms.”

Among other influencers across artistic genres are: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Diane Arbus, Chester Higgins, Beauford Smith, William Klein, Adger Cowans, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Anthony Barboza, Lou Draper and Manuel Alverez Bravo. James Mtume applauds Jules Allen’s work, as “eye-conic” and Michelle Wallace praises him as the “listening eye.” His images depict universal themes through Black folklore while remaining true to his principles, his testimonies, on his own terms.

Now at the prime age of 66, the distinguished professor has been teaching for more than two decades in the Art & Photography Department at CUNY’s Queensboro Community College. A recipient of awards and honors and enormous acclaim, Allen’s work spans several categories, including editorial, advertising and entertainment. His photographs can be found in the permanent collections of: the Museum of Modern Art; Studio Museum in Harlem; Brooklyn Museum; Smithsonian National Gallery; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New Britain Museum of Modern Art.

In collaboration with Queensboro’s Art Gallery, he has published several volumes of his work:  Hats & Hat Nots, Black Bodies, Double Up and In Your Own Sweet Way. Upcoming are: Marching Bands, Rhthymology, I Mean You and Good Lookin Out.

“My theme as a photographer was to capture the richness of African American culture. I grew up seeing photographs of Black people sitting on porches doing nothing, always being victims and hopeless. Even at an early age, those images seem absurd to me. It was a strong motivation to show a culture of activity.”

A speech by one of his heroes comes to mind, Frederick Douglass:

“… still I go back, for the sake of my brethren. I go to suffer with them,
to endure insult to them; to undergo outrage with them; lift up
my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and
struggle in their ranks for emancipation which shall be achieved.”

The photography of Jules Allen carries an empowering balance of heart, beauty and soul, leading the viewer into a reflective realm of poetic silence.


African Voices   You established yourself as a photographer, not an artist.

Jules   I make photographs, a skill I developed persistent to my character, my integrity. And I make a living doing it. I consider artists [to be] people who create across the world, bringing things to light coming from them. These are things that don’t exist for me. I record it when I see it. That’s the extent of it…. Otherwise, I cook.

AV   Did you ever get the chance to meet Mr. Gordon Parks?

Jules    Yes I did. Someone took me to his house for dinner. He already knew about my  work. We talked about many things; there was a familiarity between us that went beyond our work. Gordon is a phenomenal human being! I didn’t see much of his work until he passed. By then more of his work was made public and I developed more respect for what he has achieved.

AV     Your parents, Emma Mae and Theodore, where are they from?

Jules   My mother is from New Orleans, my father, Chicago. My parents were beautiful people. Black, lovely, elegant, hip. Just extraordinarily articulate on Black culture and beyond. Every moment, I loved watching, listening, looking at them. My father always looked sharp and my mother, she was a beautiful woman. He was a barber and worked in the post office and she was a domestic worker in the hospital. We lived in a Victorian house that my parents owned. When we went out as a family, driving around California, they would editorialize life around us, “Look how beautiful the light is on the waves.”

My parents were visual in dressing, what kind of hat to wear, shoes, tie. My father taught and bought me clothes that were tailor-made, classy. When I was ten, he took me to Brooks Brothers the way his father did him. I didn’t like a lot of what he bought because I wanted to be slick. Back in those days, men looked sharp wearing hats with suits. There was a particular way they wear hats, had to get that brim just at the right angle. Hats & Hat Nots is an homage to my father. Because he was a barber, artists, musicians, friends and customers came over to our home to watch Friday night boxing on T.V.

In our house, we were always listening to Louis Armstong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn … all day. My mother used to cook and iron listening to Sarah Vaughn. She made me watch her iron clothes so that I could learn. I watched her while she hummed along with Sarah.

Years later, in New York City, when I first heard Sarah Vaughn since home, I broke down crying… the memories of my mother, those moments…

AV        What did your parents think of your work?

Jules     My father got the photography, but not the life of a professor because back in the day, I was always in trouble. Not a committed criminal, just mischievous. My mother said I was going to be a teacher because I was counseling in programs at junior high. She thought I was a natural at it. More than anything, my parents showed me how ridiculous racism is, not being in my way, because there is no humanity in it. During a drive to Chicago, my father sent me in a restaurant in Oklahoma to get something to eat, knowing I wouldn’t get served. When I came back, he said, “That’s what it’s like. They don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t let nothing get in your way. It didn’t stop Bird, it didn’t stop Ellington.”

AV     Why was learning boxing so appealing to you?

Jules   Muhammad Ali, whom I had the pleasure meeting, and Bobby McQuillan. When I heard Bobby trained Miles Davis, someone who told me about him took me to Gleason’s Gym. I was mesmerized! It was a place where men were equal, without the racism. Bobby asked what I did, he said, “When I finish with you, you’ll be a better photographer.” He taught me the rhythm of boxing, sharpened my edges, which I applied to my photography. Bobby told me how he taught Miles Davis the bob and weave when he plays the trumpet, y’know, get down and get that butter. I developed a personal vision, which led me to photograph Gleason’s Gym later to be published as Double Up.  I gave Bobby a print I did of him. He thanked me, said he would treasure it forever, then folded it and put it in his pocket. I was flabbergasted! Bobby made me a better man. Best lessons on humanity I ever had. I dedicated Double Up to him.

AV       You’ve endured racism during your travels across the country. How did you utilize your boxing and psychology skills to defend yourself and your work?

Jules     How about crossing the street? (laughs) I went through that in the South. Whenever I was pulled over and questioned [about] why I’m driving through their area, I just tell them I am looking at the light to make photographs for an assignment. They look confused, but let me be on my way.  You know, that speech from Frederick Douglass applies to how I celebrate being in resistance, it keeps me strong, keeps me active, keeps me moving. That’s one of the reasons I drove cross-country with my son Basie, to look at the beauty of the country and to practice how to be an American… Racism and bigotry is just a small obstacle of destruction. With me, the real war is the light.

AV         What is this battle with light?

Jules      I love light. Light is Mother Nature and she’s a pistol! All day long, all we do is fight. Photographing with film, in pursuit to catch that moment [that] happens just once. One 25th of a second, that’s my sensibility. I live on a time pulse, or on a tempo, a 60th of a second. I’m a nervous wreck, impatient. I can see something developing in a frame. I can see it before it’s coming. I don’t know what it is, but I know I have to pay attention to the next seconds. I love to hear the sound of my my camera  in a quarter of a second!

AV       Ansel Adams compared photography to music, the negative like a musical score and making a print, a performance. For you, is the darkroom process a preference over digital photography?

Jules      I have fluent knowledge on digital photography, which I’m confident enough to manage, but it’s not my first language. The digital form doesn’t interfere with my personal work, which is film-based with darkroom production. Everywhere I lived [there] was a darkroom. When I lived on 155th in Harlem, I had a one-bedroom apartment, the other [room] I used as a darkroom. I like to print film; though it is tedious work, the production will continue to exist in my profession.

AV      There is wordplay in some titles of your books, for example, Hats & Hat Nots. How did you discover the word, rhthymology?

Jules    Hats and Hat Nots came from talking with Mtume about metaphors.

It was actually him who said it. “Rhythmology” was composed in the middle of my project on marching bands. I was in a hotel room sipping some whiskey, laptop computer reading Baraka, listening to jazz, I was thinking of the ritual and the rhythm of marching bands. I love the movement, line, and form.

Then I started thinking about how do you photograph rhythm on the beat, the backbeat, the rhythm of life, photographing Black culture on a backbeat. I looked up the word “rhythm” – a pulse, jazz, language, bluesology. That night became a journey into finding my idea of vision, and Rhthymology became the next project, based on landscapes with human behavior. There will be more landscapes, but I want to reflect how much we are a part of it.

The word “conjure” relates to Romare Bearden, who was a large influence on me.  Back in the day, listening to Beethoven while looking at images by Bearden. Love what he did, the use of photography to juxtapose imagery like that. The writings of Ai, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa and Derek Walcott influence my work as well, because of the way they blend words. Derek’s writing, especially on the concept of language, image and metaphor. I just discovered this new poet – at least, to me – Caryl Phillips [acclaimed as a novelist].



Poet Amiri Baraka. Photo: Jules Allen.


AV      Your portraits of nude Black women in Black Bodies are beautiful – sculptural, abstract with a graceful sensuality, yet candid. Even though it’s done through your point of view, you once referred to Hugh Bell…

 Jules    It was really the models’ point of view. They gave me their own sense of self, undirected. Bell’s nudes were a strong influence. His work is mature, sophisticated. I can’t thank him enough for his blessings. There will be a second edition of Black Bodies with new additions of nudes, retitled, I Mean You.

AV      Your students really enjoy your class. One said, “He lives an extraordinary life as a mentor and a trustworthy friend to many. You learn so much from looking at his work and letting him look at yours. If you want to become a great photographer, speak to him and open a portal to a new world of art.”

Jules    I have to serve my students, who are relentless. They have the right and I owe them. They also have a creative effect on me. My students asked how they could make a living in photography. I hired them on commercial shoots to prepare them for a job. They have done shoots with me on Tiger Woods, General Colin Powell, Frank Morgan, Jacob Lawrence, P. Diddy, Geri Allen, Slick Rick James, Jill Nelson and Robert Indiana.

AV      No wonder your class is so popular! Let’s talk about your current book, In Your Own Sweet Way which is based on several trips to Africa.

 Jules      Africa has a distinct history specific to my life in North America, where I’m always being cautious and guarding my emotions to offensive behavior,  the prejudice. I’m on edge here all day. I discovered that when the plane opens and I step out into Africa, I relax, feel embraced and I’m home. Just feel home. Africa means a lot to me visually. The beauty is really apparent. I love the rhythms, the patterns of the cultures, their lives. The architecture is so sophisticated in urban areas. It’s an ongoing site of images day in, day out. The people I encountered trusted me enough to invite me to come inside their home.

AV         In Your Own Sweet Way is also family related.

Jules      My daughter Yasmine and my son Basie wrote pages in the book. In Your Own Sweet Way is in memory of my sister, Rhonee.

AV        We appreciate you sharing moments of your life. It’s remarkable what you’ve accomplished.

Jules      Thank you. I’ve been fortunate to find a way to live and love doing it. The trick is not to abuse it. If you don’t do it right the first time, then you go back and do it again. It’s what Miles Davis said, “It takes a long time to learn to play like yourself.”

more on Jules Allen at: julesallenphotography

Clymenza Hawkins is currently writing faerie folk tales with illustrations titled Natural Enchantment for women of color.
 For information visit: clymenza.wordpress.com




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