Francesca Allen photographs women across California

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In September 2018, photographers Clément Chapillon, Ricardo Nagaoka, Francesca Allen and Brant Slomovic spent 10 days travelling across California. Commissioned by BJP, in partnership with Visit California, the resulting bodies of work shed light on the lesser known sides of the state.

“Oh my gosh, it’s thick!” “Yeah, it’s super ropey. It is not that the tattoo was thick, it just bled a lot.” “Did it hurt?” “A lot – I was 18 and I did it myself.” Photographer Francesca Allen is sitting in a small neighbourhood park in Los Angeles with Maly, an artist who lives just around the corner. Officially, Allen is here to take Maly’s photograph but, for the time being, they are content just comparing tattoos.

“I want to cover my body with my friends’ art,” says Maly, pointing to the dainty inkings dotted up and down her arms. “These little mountains are a stick and poke of a photograph I took in New Mexico. Oh Baby is an Ariel Pink song – I’m really crazy into music.” Both freelance artists working out of ambitious and creative cities, Allen and Maly have plenty in common. For the next hour or so their conversation pinballs from topic to topic; the two have only just met but it is as if they have known each other for years.

Maly is a model. “It is my work but not my focus,” she says. “My main focus is my artwork.” Her paintings are mainly abstract: swishes of pastel hues arranged in bold forms. It was a visit to Joshua Tree desert, several years ago, that proved defining for her work as an artist. “It was there that I figured out how I wanted to paint,” she says. “I love Joshua Tree: geographically but also its silence.” The conversation continues for some time. For the next half hour we discuss the ins and outs of her life as a 20-something-year-old creative living in LA: housemates, arts education, shaved heads, playing in a band.

Maly in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen.

Eventually Allen sets about taking Maly’s portrait, briefly pausing when another tangent of discussion erupts. This constant flow of conversation between photographer and subject is typical of Allen’s engaged approach. “I hang out with someone for a while. I see what they are doing, go sit in their bedroom, talk rubbish and then maybe take some pictures,” she says. “Taking the photographs is not that important; it doesn’t take up very much time.”

Each day that Allen is in California she spends time with different women. A roller skater, teenage ballet dancers, artists, park rangers, mothers, a former prom queen. An aspiring doctor, or perhaps screenwriter – 14-year-old Ingrid is still figuring this out. The women meet Allen in pairs, groups and alone; sisters, friends, romantic couples, family members. The portraits she takes are set against a variety of backdrops. In Mendocino: a grassy clearing and an organic farm. In LA: a residential car park turned vegetable patch, the back seat of a Volvo. “I’ve always driven a Volvo,” Chloe reasons, “they’re indestructible.” In Palm Springs, besides a tennis court. An alfresco bedroom in Mill Valley. 

Maribel and Maricela in Palm Springs. © Francesca Allen
Camille and Annabel in Mill Valley. © Francesca Allen.

Allen meets these women at all times of day; to immerse herself in a person’s life it is important that she slots into their daily routine as best she can. “I try and become a part of their world, even if it’s just for a moment,” she says. “I like to think that I am a part of the photographs.” This approach gives Allen no choice but to work incredibly hard. There is no meeting that is too late or too early – in Palm Springs she photographs twins Maricela and Maribel at 7am before they go to school – likewise, there is no such thing as a fleeting or hurried shoot.  

In Mendocino, a small coastal town in northern California, Allen spends the morning with Ingrid,  Sharis, Elena and Priscilla. The four sisters – aged 15, 12, 10 and 9 respectively – have lived in the town their whole lives; it makes sense that they show Allen around. They first stop at a clearing, a short stroll from the main road out of town. It is not quite meadow, not quite beach and uniquely picturesque in its in between.

“Life in California is very free and open-minded, I like that about it,” says Ingrid, the oldest of the four. “Our mom is a single mom. I see her going off to work and providing for all of us. I think I am a stronger feminist and woman because of it. My mom is really badass.” Still at high school, Ingrid is focused on her future. Of late, her social life has taken a back seat while she concentrates on her studies. She is in two minds about what career path she will take: “My more secure job is probably in the medical field but I also like to write,” she says. “I would want to be a screenwriter. I am obsessed with movies and shows and I love writing so it is a combination of those things. Or,” she continues, her thoughts running away, “I could be a novelist.”

Audrey, Anedra and Ama in Wilshire. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen

For Allen, California is familiar. Having lived in the state for several years as a child, her memories are limited but vivid. “I remember walking on the grass. The grass is really different in some parts of California, it’s really thick, tough and spiky – almost like succulent grass,” she says. “A lot of my memories of California are smelling fruit in our garden, putting my head under a sprinkler on the way home from school, and riding the back of my friend’s truck to go up to the canyons.”

We meet Sailor on the boardwalk in Long Beach, just south of LA. This city is sprawling; cars are not just the preferred mode of transport, they are almost necessary. Sailor, however, does not own a car, instead she gets around on roller skates. “When I was younger, I wanted to learn how to skate, but I didn’t know anybody who skated so I taught myself,” she says. A few years later Sailor joined a roller derby league. “I started playing with them and then it just snowballed into this huge part of my life.” Today she studies at fashion school, works in a roller skate shop, models and produces music videos. The freedom to pursue multiple careers is one of the reasons Sailor chooses to live in LA. “I feel spoilt living here because there are so many connections – everything is just 20 minutes away. It is possible to try any kind of career or niche activity. That is why I do so many things, and I have so many jobs. I can do it all here.”

Sailor on Long Beach City Beach, Los Angeles. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen

One of the many remarkable things about watching Allen work is her principled approach. “If you take a picture, you are taking something from a person,” she reflects. “So if you are not a part of that moment then it’s not fair. You are not going to be able to tell a realistic story. But, if you can be a part of that experience, even if it’s just for a short time, then it becomes your story to tell.”

Ten days is a short space of time to travel across California. Almost 50 women is a lot of people to photograph in that time. Yet Allen’s commitment to creating the space, and offering the time, to step into the worlds of every single person she photographs, even just momentarily, means that California is truly her story to tell.

Words: Anya Lawrence 

Jordan and Poppy in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen
Bianca in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen
Roselyn and Tatjana in Palm Springs. © Francesca Allen
Ellen in Mendocino. © Francesca Allen
Cher in Oakland. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen
Sam and Lindsey in Oakland. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen
Chloe in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. Casting by Lucky Pettersen at Shay Nielsen. © Francesca Allen

Meet California is a British Journal of Photography commission made in partnership with Visit California. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.