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 fifty years with Gertrude Tate. A rebel who broke away from the ties of her Victorian environment, Alice Austen created her own independent life.
With a small baby and no means of support, Alice's mother moved back to her parents home "Clear Comfort" where Alice would grow up the center of attention in a household that would eventually contain six adults and no other children. Alice was introduced to photography when her uncle, a Danish sea captain named Oswald Müller, brought home a camera when she was ten years old. This camera, long since lost, is believed to have been a dry plate camera of' British manufacture, possibly purchased by Captain Müller during one of the regular round-the-world voyages of the clipper ship he commanded.
As Müller experimented with the bulky wooden box, demonstrating it to his wife and other members of the Austen family in their garden, Alice watched, enchanted. Although she was only ten years old, she was patient and intelligent, and strong enough to hold the big camera steady on its tripod; her hands were naturally skillful at adjusting the simple mechanism. When it was time for uncle Oswald to sail away again, he gave Alice permission to use the camera in his absence.
Alice's uncle Peter, by now a newly-appointed young professor of chemistry, realized that in her hands the camera would become something more than a toy. On his frequent visits home from Rutgers University he showed his enthusiastic niece how to use chemicals to develop the glass plates she exposed, and how to make prints from them. He and uncle Oswald helped Alice even further by installing, in an upstairs storage closet, a tiny home-built darkroom where Alice would spend hours on end developing plates, and toning and fixing her prints. Since there was no running water in the house when she was young, she carried her plates and prints down to the pump by the well in the back garden, winter and summer, to rinse them in basins of icy cold water (sometimes changing the rinse water as many as twenty-five times, according to her memory in later years). Fortunately Alice's family was sufficiently prosperous to provide her with the best of the equipment she required and indulgent enough to humor her enthusiasm for her unusual hobby.
By the time she was eighteen years old (the earliest year from which any of her photographic plates or prints survive), Alice Austen was an experienced photographer with professional standards. The people and places closest to her -- her grandparents, mother, aunt and uncles, household servants and visitors, as well as the Austen house and garden as seen from every possible angle of driveway and waters edge -- served as the first subjects for Alice's camera. She also made many early self-portraits, perhaps representing the natural vanity of an attractive, smartly dressed young woman, or possibly some temporary reluctance on the part of family members and friends to pose yet again, immobilized in front of the camera for perhaps an hour or more. For young Miss Austen was an exacting photographer. In her old age she could joke about it, but she admitted that in her youth nothing but absolute perfection -- in lighting, composition and even the facial expressions of her long-suffering subjects would suffice before she would release the shutter.
Alice Austen was active, social and well-traveled. Everywhere she went she took her photographic equipment with her. Weighing as much as fifty pounds and sometimes filling a steamer trunk it included cameras of different sizes, a tripod, magnesium flash attachment, and glass plates as big as eight by ten inches. In a horse-drawn buggy in the 1880's and 1890's, she carried her equipment around the unpaved roads of Staten Island...to Midland Beach, South Beach, to winter skating parties on the Island's frozen ponds and creeks and private parties at the homes of friends. Popular and extraordinarily athletic, Alice enjoyed many of the new sports of the time. The game of lawn tennis was the sport she enjoyed the most and her camera was as much a companion as her racquet. In 1885 the first tennis club in the nation was established in Livingston. It was there that nineteen-year old Alice spent countless summer afternoons, on the courts and behind her camera, photographing the players and the crowds of spectators. Another sport fast becoming a national fad was bicycling, and Alice shared the enthusiasm of her good friend Violet Ward who wrote a book, Bicycling for Ladies, which was published in 1896. There was much laughter involved when Violet shakily tried to ride her bicycle slow enough for Alice's camera to capture her in action. These illustrations for Violet's book are among the few photographs Alice ever had commercially published.
During the 1890's Alice began to travel outside the environs of Staten Island. Her trips took her upstate New York to Fishkill, Fort Ticonderogaand Mohonk as well as interstate to Vermont, Illinois and Massachusetts. In the autumn of 1892 we believe Alice and her mother made a trip to Europe. She continued to spend her summers traveling around Europe through the 1890's and into the early part of the 20th century, always accompanied by her cumbersome camera equipment.
On one such summer excursion in 1899, visiting a Catskill hotel known as "Twilight Rest," Alice met Gertrude Tate, who was recuperating there from a bad case of typhoid fever. Gertude was twenty-eight, a kindergarten teacher and professional dancing instructor, who worked to support her younger sister and widowed mother in Brooklyn. Judging from the small personal photo album that commemorates that summer, Gertrude's spontanious gaiety and warm humor enchanted Alice, who was then thirty-three. Gertrude began regularly to visit the Austen House, then to spend long summer holidays in Europe with Alice. But not until 1917, when her younger sister and mother gave up their Brooklyn home, did Gertrude, overriding her family's appalled objections over her "wrong devotion" to Alice, finally move into Clear Comfort.
Alice also carried her camera equipment about the streets of New York, photographing the newly arriving immigrants and older residents as they went about their business. Alice always photographed the people and places of her world as they actually appeared, giving us a beautiful visual window on 19th century America.
As she neared the age of fifty Alice Austen increasingly found herself playing the role of a prominent member of Staten Island society. Beginning in l9l0, Miss E. Alice Austen was listed annually in New York's Social Register. She frequented the Richmond County Country Club on S.I. and was a member of the Colony Club in Manhattan.
Next to photography, Alice's second love was gardening and she worked almost every day from spring through autumn to improve the garden hergrandfather had laid out, turning the ground of "Clear Comfort" into a horticultural showplace. In 1914, Alice founded the Staten Island Garden Club, an organization that celebrated its centennial in 2014 and its members still help maintain the beautiful Victorian gardens at the Alice Austen House Museum.
Having lived such a privileged life, Alice was not at all prepared for the fate awaiting her in her final years. The once substantial income from the capital left by her grandfather had dwindled to a modest sum by the 1920's. Then, when the stock market crashed in 1929 Alice, at sixty-three years of age, lost everything. From then on life was a desperate struggle to survive.
Alice and Gertude opened a Tea Room on the lawn for a few years but it never yielded enough profit to support the household. As it became harder and harder to meet the expenses of daily living Alice began to sell the silver, art works and furniture that filled "Clear Comfort". She also mortgaged and re-mortgaged the house but finally lost it in 1945. In a final desperate act, Alice sold the remaining contents of her home for $600.00 to a dealer from New Jersey. However, before he arrived, Alice called Loring McMillen, a friend from the Staten Island Historical Society, and asked him to take her glassplate negatives for safekeeping.
Alice and Gertude moved to a small apartment at first, but soon they could not afford the rent. Gertrude's family offered to provided housing, but only for Gertrude. Thus, on June 24,1950 Alice took an oath declaring herself a pauper and was admitted to the local poor house, the Staten Island Farm Colony.
Unbeknownst to Alice, a small publishing company called Picture Press was planning to do a book on the history of American women. One of the two partners, Oliver Jensen, sent out a routine letter of inquiry to various institutions concerning suitable photographs. C. Copes Brinley of the S.I. historical society responded by inviting him to look at those dusty boxes containing 3,500 of Alice Austen's glass plate negatives. So, on a cold dark night in October 1950, Constance Foulk Robert, a young researcher, met with Brinley and McMillen to go through the negatives. Realizing that she had stumbled on the work of a great woman photographer, she brought Oliver Jensen with her on a return trip. Signing an agreement with the Historical Society, Oliver Jensen then published many of Alice's photos in the Revolt of Women. He also placed an eight-page story (with later sequels) in Life, and six pages of Alice's travel photos in Holiday, raising more than $4,000. Miss Austen's third of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the Farm Colony and into a private nursing home.
On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was driven to see an exhibition of her pictures and to meet the three hundred guests who had been invited to celebrate Alice Austen Day. She is quoted as having said, "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people."