Alice Austen (1866 - 1952) was one of America's earliest and most prolific female photographers, and over the course of her life she captured about 8,000 images. Though she is best known for her documentary work, Austen was an artist with a strong aesthetic sensibility. Furthermore, she was a landscape designer, a master tennis player, and the first woman on Staten Island to own a car. She never married, and instead spent 50 years with Gertrude Tate. A rebel who broke away from the ties of her Victorian environment, Alice Austen created her own independent life.
Alice Austen was introduced to photography when she was 10 years old by her Uncle Oswald, who brought home an early-model dry plate camera from one of his many trips abroad. Alice showed immediate and natural ability. Through experimentation she taught herself how to operate the complex camera mechanism, judge exposure, develop the heavy glass plates, and make prints.
By the time she was 18 in 1884, she was not only technically skilled but artistically accomplished as well. Alice was active, social, and well traveled. Everywhere she went, she took her camera equipment, which sometimes weighed as much as 50 pounds and often filled a steamer trunk. As a result of her desire to photograph so much of her life and the world around her, her range of subjects was extensive. In her lifetime, she created images on approximately 8,000 glass plates, of which more than 3,000 survive.
Alice remained an amateur photographer at heart, though she sold some of her work. She took pictures for the love of it-and so she had more freedom to express herself than professional Victorian women photographers. Her straightforward style anticipated documentary photography. At the same time, she used composition, pose, costuming, and satire to convey her point of view. Alice Austen's work is significant because of its high quality, its range, and its level of expression that together form a beautiful visual window on 19th- century America.