Senior Life

Finding beauty in an aging body

by Len Lear
Posted 10/12/23

Sara Allen's mantra should be “Better late than never.”

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Senior Life

Finding beauty in an aging body


Sara Allen's mantra should be “Better late than never.”

A Mt. Airy resident for the past 58 years, the 81-year-old Allen taught middle and upper school English at Springside School (now Springside Chestnut Hill Academy) for 33 years until her retirement in 2006.

“The girls all wore uniforms back then,” said Allen last week. “I really liked Springside. We had a lot of independence. Teachers could make up their own curriculum. I taught a lot of Black and feminist literature. I believe we did projects I could not have done anywhere else.”

The 2005 death of Allen’s husband Ralph, a hero of the civil rights movement, sent the retired teacher on a path of self-discovery. Lonely without her husband, and two children who live thousands of miles away, Allen decided to take up photography. She bought a Nikon SLR camera, a purchase that changed her life. 

In the years since then, she has developed a photographic eye and skill that has been showcased at various galleries, including the DaVinci Gallery in South Philadelphia. Allen’s current exhibit, “Fragments” at Abington Art Center in the Alverthorpe Manor, 515 Meetinghouse Rd. in Jenkintown, will be on display through Oct. 21.

The exhibit consists of close-ups of Allen’s “naturally aging body with its creases, folds and rough textures, its bumps and lines and spots…,” Allen explained. “The parts are familiar: the neck, the brow, the back, the fingers and hands, the legs and feet, the torso from the side or the back. It's about what is beautiful and fascinating about the human body.”

Allen is a native of Vermont. She was a history major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and earned an M.A. in English at Middlebury College in Vermont. After having two children, she spent seven years as a stay-at-home mom before teaching English for two years in alternative public schools and then Springside. 

Allen’s husband, a native of Melrose, Massachusetts, was one of the “Americus Four,” who were arrested in Americus, Georgia, after an August 1963, demonstration, charged with “seditious conspiracy” (inciting insurrection), a capital crime, and held without bail for three months. 

Ralph was released on Nov. 1, 1963, by a three-judge federal panel that found the charge unconstitutional. On Nov. 6, 1963, an all-white jury found Allen guilty of assault with intent to murder a police officer in lieu of the insurrection charge. Ralph, who later taught English at Penn Charter and Germantown Academy, was sentenced to two years, but his sentence was appealed and overturned. He died of heart disease at 63. 

After Ralph’s death, and with son Ralph and daughter Elizabeth far away, Allen began studying photography. Back then, her work was “unexceptional,” she said.  “But it was the pandemic that changed my photography. As part of a class critique, I was forced to go online in March 2020, and I began exploring the feeling of living alone a long way from family members. It took at least a year before I found my vehicle: self-portraits.”

At first, Allen photographed herself, using a 10-second timer, looking out a window or sitting alone at a table. Gradually, she discovered that isolated parts of a body (legs, feet, arms, shoulder, back, hands, forehead, side) were interesting in themselves. Gallery owners apparently agreed. She was given a solo show of both color and black-and-white images at DaVinci Gallery in 2022, which won her an honorable mention from the National Council on Aging, followed by numerous group, member and online exhibits. 

“I further refined my image-making over the last three years,” Allen said, “focusing more and more on interesting aspects of the body: the texture of the skin, the interesting intersections of arms and legs or hands and back or feet and hands, the 'landscape' of the body, so to speak. I thought I was focusing on the aging body but discovered it wasn’t old age per se that I wanted to show.”

In 2020, Allen joined a critique group which is ongoing. During the pandemic, she sought to create situations in which gesture, light and composition communicated her feelings of sadness and a quiet pensiveness about this time of isolation. As this exploration continued, the project became more about the expressiveness of the human body itself, a perspective reflected in her current exhibit.

“I try to make the ordinary body strange,” Allen said. “I want viewers to look at something in a different way than they have looked at it many times before.” 

For more information, email or visit Len Lear can be reached at