When Ian Allen learned that the storied Bethlehem steel mill in eastern Pennsylvania was going to be turned into a 126-acre casino and entertainment complex, he couldn’t resist making the trip. Allen, a low-key Seattle native who has traveled the world in search of good stories, sneaked in with his friend Jeremy Blakeslee three different times to take pictures, and each visit was an adventure: jumping train tracks, hopping fences, and hiding in bushes from security guards.
The results of these risky photo outings—Blakeslee had been caught on a previous trip and charged with trespassing—are surprisingly subdued. The cavernous images have a mournful air; one can feel the staleness in the place. In some shots, the abandoned machinery looms as if it were wounded. The photos capture what is absent as much as what remains. Allen’s experience shooting at the steel mill reflects an adventurous and open-minded spirit that informs all of his work, whether it’s photography or design.
“I think he represents the idea of what ‘new visual artist’ means,” says Tracy Boychuk, principal of New York design firm Trooper, which produces Stop Smiling magazine. Boychuk discovered Allen in a class she taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he had enrolled after moving to the city from Seattle. Allen had already taken a handful of design classes at School of Visual Concepts in his hometown and served a stint coding web sites for interactive ad agency Think Inc. It was at Think that Allen, while working with art directors, realized he was destined for more than churning out code. “I wanted to be doing what they were doing, coming up with ideas and implementing them,” he says.
At SVA, Boychuk encouraged him to use his photography in his design work and eventually offered him a spot at Trooper.
He has since developed two creative selves, splitting his time between the two disciplines. “I like both sides,” he says. “Design is me sitting here listening to music in my pajamas—if I want to be—while working on stuff. It’s an introverted thing. Photography gets you out meeting people, traveling around, seeing things.”
He draws on the experience of a recent trip to Asia, where he shot a busy, technologically advanced part of Tokyo and contrasted it with a rural location in Tibet. “The contrast was intentional. Beijing was interesting in that it was the greatest clash of the old and the new,” he says.
While his fingerprints are all over his photography, his design touch is unobtrusive. Allen has art directed numerous issues of Stop Smiling the last three years; and he designed American Illustration 25 with a strong respect for the content, marking it gently with a series of timeline-related dots that expand across the bottom of the book. This duality defines his work. The photographer in him can analyze information from several angles, while his design side invents a visual system to explain it all.
At the moment, he dreams of shooting both the Sahara and the Canadian Nunavut territory. “At this point in my career, I’d rather be stuffing my portfolio and wait to stuff my wallet later, if ever,” he says. “I’m trying to avoid the ever-increasing salary-equals-success mentality that young designers can get trapped in.”