Pssst! Wanna buy some dirty pictures?
About 1,400 of em?
Actually, dirty pictures were the last things on the minds of George Hall and Bob Martinique as they browsed through a Prescott antique store one weekend last October. But upon learning that the two men were photography buffs interested in antique cameras and projectors, the store's proprietor smiled knowingly. "I think I have something just for you," he whispered as he produced a metal strongbox from beneath the counter. "This is special--it's not for everyone."

By the time the Tucson pair left the store, Hall and Martinique were the proud owners of a porndora's box containing more than 1,425 erotic negatives, most of them reportedly shot during the latter half of the 1920s.

Evenly divided between interior and exterior shots, images on the negatives ranged from cheesecake poses and fairly innocuous nude figure studies to hard-core shots depicting lesbian acts and group sex. According to the antique dealer, the negatives had been found inside a wall during remodeling of an old saloon on Prescott's Whiskey Row.

Hall and Martinique's boxful of photographic dirty secrets begged plenty of questions. Who had shot the pictures? Why had they been stashed in the wall of a Prescott bar? Once hidden, how did the torrid trove manage to go undetected for nearly 70 years? And, lurid though they were, was it possible the technically crude photos had historical value, like those photographer E.J. Bellocq had taken of the World War I era prostitutes in New Orleans' Storyville district?

The answer to at least one of those questions became apparent after the pair adjourned to Martinique's Tucson darkroom. Although the Prescott antique dealer claimed the negatives showed prostitutes who'd once worked in that northern Arizona town, the prints Hall and Martinique made soon proved otherwise.

Plainly recognizable background elements in the decades-old images revealed that most of the pictures were shot not in Prescott, but in Phoenix.

Sex and sin under the saguaros? Hotcha!
"Our first reaction was that maybe we'd find photos of Winnie Ruth Judd or one of her victims," chuckles 42-year-old George Hall, referring to the celebrated trunk murderess of the period who was recently immortalized in a book by former New Times staffer Jana Bommersbach. "From what I gathered from reading the book, it certainly seemed within the realm of possibility that Winnie--or certainly someone she knew--could very well have been mixed up in a pornography ring."
Hall and Martinique soon determined that their photos had no direct connection to the sensational Judd case. Instead, the freelance musicians claim all available evidence strongly points to a Phoenix electrician who died nearly 30 years ago.

The first clue to the photographer's identity sprang from the fact that the majority of the pictures were shot with a Kodak C-3 Autographic, a camera that allowed shutterbugs to "autograph" their negatives with a metal stylus. Evidently unable to resist the lure of the gimmicky feature, the mystery lensman dutifully etched the signature "Allison" into the borders of many of his naughty negatives.

Another major clue was provided by the distinctive paper with which "Allison" chose to wrap those negatives--stationery and envelopes, now yellowing, from the Vinson-Carter Electrical Company, a long-defunct Phoenix electrical contractor.

Armed with the additional information that the photos had been taken in the late 1920s (dated car license plates are visible in several photos), Hall and Martinique began scouring public records in hopes of connecting the mysterious "Allison" with the electrical company. The duo hit pay dirt in city directories of the era, discovering that a man named Henry C. Allison had indeed worked at Vinson-Carter, a job he held on and off for 24 years, beginning in 1917. After working as an electrician at various other companies around the Valley for the rest of his life, Allison died in 1965, at age 65, in the V.A. Hospital in Long Beach, California.

Allison's electrical background plays an important role in the theoretical scenario linking him to the cache of erotica. Because the fast-speed films that would eventually revolutionize indoor flash photography were not then on the market, Hall and Martinique believe Allison's electrical know-how enabled him to rig up the relatively sophisticated studio-style lighting necessary to photograph the many interior shots in the collection.

The pair offers up another connection tying Allison to the racy relics. Tracking the electrician's life through telephone books, obituaries and other public documents, the partners were able to determine that during the early 1960s, several members of the Allison clan left Phoenix. Significantly, some of them (including Henry's mother) migrated to Prescott--the very same city where Allison's erotic collection turned up in an antique store nearly 30 years later.

The antique dealer who claimed the pictures had been found in a Whiskey Row saloon when he sold Hall and Martinique the negatives may have been repeating a fallacious cover story. Given the facts, it's far more likely that someone--perhaps a distant relative--ran across the negatives somewhere along the line and decided to sell them to a dealer, little realizing he was exhuming an old skeleton from the family closet.

@rule:
@body:Thanks to the Tucson natives' diligent detective work, the bones in that skeleton have been reassembled for the first time in nearly 70 years.

"The fact that we happened to be the ones that stumbled onto these is really fortuitous," says Hall, referring to the pair's mutual interest in photography and Arizona history. Like the 46-year-old Martinique, Hall is a freelance pianist. The pair occasionally team up to provide musical accompaniment for silent movies and related ragtime entertainments at various "Pioneer Day"-style events around the state.

For better or worse, demand for those services was not exactly overwhelming last fall. As a result, the duo was able to devote weeks on end to cataloguing its find. "Basically, what we'd bought was a boxful of 1,400 individual negatives and a lot of notes," says Hall. "The negatives were not in strips; Allison had cut them all apart. We had one hell of a mess on our hands."

By consulting Allison's cryptic notes, matching models' wardrobes and hairstyles, and comparing actual cuts in the negatives, the duo was eventually able to catalogue hundreds of different shooting sessions that had taken place over a five-year period.

"It was as if someone had taken a print of Gone With the Wind, run it through a paper shredder, then expected us to paste it back together," says Hall. "It wasn't like this guy had gone out in the desert and shot some dirty pictures one afternoon. This collection represents many, many afternoons out in the desert."
The pair claims that determining that some of the pictures were indeed taken in Phoenix was not nearly as difficult as it might seem.

In one photograph, a nude girl gambols in front of a deserted stretch of railroad track; a mileage marker in the background indicates that photo was taken very near what is now the Mill Avenue Bridge. In another series of shots, women frolic under a waterfall; after surveying old maps, Hall and Martinique theorize those scenes were shot near a manmade reservoir that once served Buckeye. Checking old car license plates against motor-vehicle records indicated that cars visible in Allison's photos (including an Essex, a Model T and two Hudsons) were all registered in Maricopa County.

"The sheer volume of negatives and number of different women involved have convinced us that, on some level, at least, this was a professional operation," says Martinique. "It certainly wasn't a big pornography syndicate, like you hear about today. But from here, it looks like he was running a one-man operation. But we're pretty sure he was selling the stuff around town."
While records indicate that Allison spent most of his life living at a house at 1103 East Washington (now the site of a parking lot), Hall and Martinique have serious doubts that any pornography was actually shot at that address.

Instead, the pair claims it's developed information that strongly suggests the interior porn was actually shot at a house (now razed) located at 722 East Monroe, just a few blocks north of Allison's home.

"Obviously, there's no way of knowing exactly what was going on in Henry Allison's house on Washington," confesses Hall. "But we do know Allison was living with his mother, and I personally have a real hard time believing he was able to operate a pornography racket right under the same roof without her knowing about it."
"Maybe his mother did know what he was up to," continues Martinique. "That's something we have no way of knowing. It just makes more sense to us that everything was happening at this other house a couple of blocks away." The pair believes that in addition to using the Monroe residence as a semipermanent photography studio (virtually all interior shots in the collection feature the same bordello-looking parlor), Allison may also have been using the house as a photo-developing and storage facility.

And there's even evidence to suggest that some of Allison's less graphic material made it beyond the speakeasies, poolrooms and barbershops of Phoenix. While rummaging through the photographer's notes, Hall discovered an address for the Acme Art Company in New York City, a long-defunct company that produced risqu‚ picture postcards for arcade vending machines around the country.

In any event, Allison apparently permanently slammed the lens cap on his camera in 1931, the latest date for which any photo in the collection can be verified.

Interestingly, that's just about when Sheriff John R. McFadden took office, launching a crusade to clean up the lawless town in which Allison's porno-picture empire had prospered.

Even more interestingly, that's right around the time that Henry C. Allison took a four-year sabbatical from the pages of the Phoenix city directory.

"We think Henry realized the heat was on and he just decided to lay low for a few years," theorizes Hall, who was unable to find any record of Allison's whereabouts until the photographer returned to Phoenix. "I believe he made some money and was smart enough to get out of the business while he was ahead. I just think he stopped taking pictures, that's all.

"Obviously, there are still a lot of unanswered questions," says Hall. "But trust us--we're confident in our own minds that these photos are the work of Allison."
So confident, in fact, that the pair has gone so far as to produce a glossy brochure, advertising limited-edition portfolios of the "erotic photographs of Henry C. Allison." Hoping to cash in on their find, Hall and Martinique also hope to publish a "classy" coffee-table book about the Allison works and hope to convince a prestigious photo gallery to mount an Allison retrospective.

Even if those projects do get off the ground, don't expect Hall and Martinique to tell everything they've learned about the mysterious Allison or his relatives.

"Let's just say that due to the sensitive nature of these pictures, there are some things we found out that we're not at liberty to divulge," says Martinique. "When dealing with something like this, we've got to respect the privacy of others who may not share our enthusiasm for Henry Allison's work. Let's face it, this is not landscape photography."
@rule:
@body:Combining dusty data gleaned from public records with the much friskier details suggested by Allison's carnal camerawork, Hall and Martinique have pieced together an intriguing portrait of the puzzling pornophile.

Born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1900, Henry C. Allison came to Phoenix with his mother at the age of 8. The pair moved into a house at 1103 East Washington--a home that mother, son and a seemingly endless parade of women would share for the next 30-odd years.

Following a stint in World War I, Henry Allison returned to his job at Vinson-Carter Electrical Company. In 1925, Allison hooked up with "Dorothy," the first of an indeterminate number of women who may or may not have been legally married to the electrician. (During one four-year period alone, city directories indicate Allison was married three times; two of the "wives" were named "Topsy" and "Teepee.") Sometime during this period, Allison discovered the joys of erotic photography.

Equally at home on both ends of the lens (thanks to a long shutter cord, the photographer frequently lent his own, not inconsiderable talents to the torrid tableaux), the small but well-built Allison (who resembled the young Gary Cooper from certain angles) was a perfect foil for his uninhibited companions.

"The pictures speak for themselves," says Hall, who points out that Allison is the only man to appear in any of the sex scenes. "This guy was a stud and he liked his ladies--sometimes more than one at a time."
In spite of the rough qualities (both technically and tastewise) that pervade Henry Allison's work, George Hall insists the electrician's photography is not just run-of-the-mill pornography.

"If you follow the progression of Allison's pictures over the years, you can see that, consciously or not, he was experimenting with some pretty arty stuff," says Hall. "There are some technical problems that he never quite overcomes, but, artistically, it's signifigant that he'd even attempt anything trickier than aiming the camera at someone's genitals."
Giving his customers the benefit of both sides of his models' anatomies, Allison shot several women in front of mirrors. Elsewhere in the collection, an idyllic photo of a nude woman contemplating a waterfall is clearly inspired by an old Maxfield Parrish print. And in the collection's most ambitious series, Allison uses 16 photos to document what appears to be a young man's seduction of a young girl; however, the surprise ending reveals the "man" is actually another girl and the series ends with a hard-core lesbian clinch.

However, Hall and Martinique have been far less successful in learning much about the dozen or so models who caper through Allison's wonderland. Outside of a litany of names mentioned in the electrician's notes, the only big discovery to date is that one of the women worked as an usherette in the long-gone Ramona Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

In any event, Henry Allison appears to have been an equal-opportunity pornographer--and a very generous one, at that. Although a few of the prettier models might have passed as film starlets of the era (including one alarmingly youthful-looking nymphet), other subjects were not similarly blessed. One dowdy mother-to-be poses in the advanced stages of pregnancy, while a couple of other dull-eyed fraus look as if they've pulled one too many double shifts during dollar day at the whorehouse.

Although they can't prove it, Hall and Martinique strongly suspect that many of the models in Allison's archives were seasoned hookers.

"If these girls weren't professional prostitutes, they were, at the very least, 'party girls,'" says Hall as he eyeballs one of the collection's more startling images, a photo of a young woman gamely exploring the erotic potential of a carrot. "I think it's safe to assume that these women were not the proverbial 'girls next door.'"
Explaining that Allison's notes have tentatively allowed him and his partner to identify many of the women, Hall is stymied that he can't go any further with the information.

"Some of these girls may have left town, gotten married, changed their names, and died," he theorizes. "Others may still be alive. And if we could locate the ones who were still alive, would they talk? That's what's made this project so intriguing, yet so frustrating. As much as we've discovered, I still feel like we've just uncovered the end of a ball of yarn."
@rule:
@body:At least one collector of vintage erotica finds it "miraculous" that Hall and Martinique have been able to dig up as much dirt as they have.

"Facts about pornography are, pardon the pun, very hard to come by," says Richard Merkin, a collector of old-time pornography who lives in New York City. "A lot of what turns up these days are repros of repros of repros of repros. It's rare to run across a firsthand collection of this magnitude.

"Most of the people who were turning out porn back then are long dead and gone," explains Merkin. And the ones who are still around aren't much more talkative. "Due to the nature of the material, many people who were involved with porn way back when still don't feel comfortable talking about it--these people were underground for so many years, they're still looking over their shoulders.

"That's why what these men [Hall and Martinique] have done is so significant," continues Merkin, who makes his living as an artist. "They've done some magnificent legwork tracking down where those pictures were actually taken. In the old days, everyone would have you believe all the porn in the world came from Paris, New Orleans or Cuba. This proves that it was going on everywhere, even in Phoenix."
But as much as he admires Allison's work (after viewing portions of the collection last fall, the painter praised the photographs' "wonderful kind of crudity"), Merkin has serious doubts that the collection is the gold mine Hall and Martinique hope it is.

"These guys didn't find old pictures," says Merkin. "They found old negatives. From a collector's standpoint, that's a big difference--the difference between a marvelous old print made 50 years ago and something printed yesterday afternoon off an old negative. An old print has a wonderful patina to it that you simply cannot duplicate with a new print."
And according to Merkin, the stigma of hard-core will almost certainly queer plans to mount an Allison-themed book or photo exhibition.

"If these guys could find a reputable mainstream publisher that would let them print the really rough photographs, it'd be wonderful, really interesting and they'd really have something to see," says Merkin, author of Velvet Eden, a pictorial history of vintage erotica published in 1979. "But the book's never going to happen at all unless you're dealing with a scum-of-the-Earth publisher. And once you get away from the hard-core pictures, what are you left with? A lot of sad-looking pinup models posing on old cars and the continual reminder to the reader that--wink! wink!--you shoulda seen the one that got away.'

"That's exactly what happened to my book," sighs Merkin. "Sometimes, you just have to realize that you've got something very interesting but you can't do a damn thing with it."
@rule:
@body:If the Allison pictures prove too hot to handle for the commercial publishing world, heads of several Valley historical organizations--none of whom had actually seen the collection--indicate they'd happily don asbestos gloves in order to evaluate the historic curios.

"If these pictures are in fact attributable to Arizona, it gives them great historical value," says Michael Duchemin, museum department head of the Arizona Historical Society. Admitting that the sexual nature of the collection would make it a "controversial" acquisition, Duchemin nonetheless feels the pictures could be invaluable in documenting "an undercurrent of society in Phoenix that isn't often talked about."
"It sounds like a very interesting find," echoes Ed Oetting, head of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at Arizona State University's Hayden Library. However, he adds, "If these are simply cheesecake pictures that could have been taken anywhere, this is not the type of collection we would probably be interested in. On the other hand, if there are identifiable indications in much of the photography that showed this was, in fact, Phoenix, it could be quite valuable from a historic standpoint. If there are interior shots, for example, we might be very interested--one of the things that's hardest to document is the insides of homes of earlier periods, simply because people didn't have flash cameras."
Dennis Madden, curator of the Arizona Historical Foundation in ASU's Hayden Library, agrees that something should be done with the pictures--although he's not sure just what. "This stuff should be retained somewhere and not just end up in a Dumpster," he says. But, "from the 'erotic' standpoint, we're not the appropriate repository to house something like this. However, we might be interested in terms of buildings, landscapes and the interiors that are visible."

Madden warns that no matter who winds up with the Allison photos, the sensitive nature of the photos demands that they be "handled in a most unusual way." "I really don't know how you'd go about handling a collection like this, given the fact that it's as recent as it is," says Madden. "I know that 65 years ago sounds like ancient history to most people. Still, there's a very good possibility that some of the individuals in these pictures are still alive, considering that some of the women may have only been 18 or 20 years old at the time."

"It's an interesting problem, but I really don't know the answer," concludes Madden. "This is one sticky wicket.

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