Alice Austen was one of the first women photographers in this country to work outside the confines of a studio. She is best known as a documentary photographer - a style of photography unusual until the 20th century. With a natural instinct for photojournalism some 40 years before that word was coined, she saw the world with a clear eye and photographed the people and places in it, as they actually appeared. But she was also an artist, with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a determined eye. She knew what she wanted to capture, and she knew how to capture it.
Alice's interest in photography began at the age of ten when her Uncle Oswald brought home a camera from Germany, on one of his many voyages abroad. Through experimentation she taught herself how to operate the complex camera mechanism, judge exposure, develop the heavy glass plates, and make prints. Alice also took copious notes about the picture-making process. On the envelopes in which she stored her negatives she diligently penciled the brand name of the plate and of the lens she had used, the exposure time, the aperture and focal distance, light conditions, the subject, and the exact time at which she had taken the photograph. Poring over these envelopes later, she learned to correct her mistakes. By the time she was 18 Alice was an experienced and highly accomplished photographer.
Working steadily and taking pictures almost every day for the next five decades, Alice produced about 8,000 photographs of which some 3,500 still exist. In her earliest photographs Alice's devotion to her home, "Clear Comfort," was especially evident. Her home was the backdrop and subject of her images as she recorded in extensive and loving detail family members, friends, and happy events. These photographs captured a relaxed upper middle class enjoying a now long-vanished social life of ritualized leisure pursuits. From picnicking in the mountains, cavorting at the beach, and bowling parties in the private alley at a friend's mansion, to the new game of lawn tennis, the sport she enjoyed with the greatest enthusiasm, and the latest fad of bicycling, on the new "safety" bicycles with their pneumatic tires, along the unpaved roads of Staten Island - Alice's camera captured it all. It has been said that it was Alice's athletic stamina, as much as her artistic sense, that made her such an extraordinary photographer. She even climbed atop a fencepost, not caring if she exposed her ankles, in pursuit of the picture she wanted of a local auto speed trial.
Occasionally Alice undertook photographic projects of a quasi-commercial nature to oblige friends. When Violet Ward decided to write a book, Bicycling for Ladies, in 1896, Alice photographed another friend, gymnast Daisy Elliott, as a model demonstrating the correct (and dangerously incorrect) positions in which to turn corners, coast, dismount and turn the vehicle upside down for repairs. Daisy posed motionless, her bicycle supported by a stout pole that later was made invisible when the illustrations were reproduced. A professional teacher of gymnastics, Daisy also requested that Alice photograph her smartly uniformed students in her studio with its impressive array of calisthenics equipment.
Alice also took an extensive series of photographs - almost as a professional assignment, at the request of Dr. Doty of the U.S. Public Health Service - of the local Quarantine Station in the early 1890s. During this time, half a million immigrants a year were sailing into New York, as the greatest mass immigration in human history got under way. The immigrants were admitted through the newly-built (1892) federal station on Ellis Island, but before they were allowed to enter the harbor, all ships had to pause for inspection at the Quarantine Station just south of the Austen house. To provide additional space for quarantine facilities, two small islands off the eastern shore of Staten Island were enlarged with landfills: Hoffman and Swinburn Islands. The work of the Quarantine Station so fascinated Alice that she returned with her camera, year after year, for more than a decade, to record the equipment, laboratories, buildings and people of Hoffman and Swinburn islands and the shore station near her home. These particular photographs reveal her natural instinct for photojournalism. Alice's reluctance to abandon a photographic subject until she covered it thoroughly can be seen in this exhaustive series of pictures that was commissioned and then exhibited in Buffalo at the Pan American Exposition of 1901.
Alice was as comfortable in the rush and clamor of Manhattan as she was in the more rural settings of' Staten Island, and her studies of the people and places she found there offer as good a record as we have of turn-of-the-century New York. Compiling a large portfolio of "street types" (which she had copyrighted at the Library of Congress), she documented street-sweepers, snow-cleaners, rag-pickers, and peddlers. She also recorded postmen, policemen, bootblacks, fishmongers, organ-grinders, messengers, shoeshine boys, and newsgirls. She photographed these people quite simply because she found them interesting. As she traveled throughout Manhattan, the subjects she chose for her camera included drivers of hansom cabs, the first automotive taxis, the victory parade for Admiral Dewey, the tickertape celebration at the end of World War I, and for calmer moments in photography, boating on the lake in Central Park.
Alice Austen considered herself an "amateur" in relation to her photographic pursuits. This was largely because she did not receive compensation for her work. She did send some 150 prints to the Library of Congress in Washington to be copyrighted, and several of those were printed as postcards for her own personal use. One series of photographs dating from 1896 (the 50 "street types" of New York City) was published as a small portfolio of photogravures by the Albertype Company of New York and may have been intended for sale. Alice's work is significant because of its high quality, its range, and its level of expression. For her, the creative process was one of composition and selection, which allowed her subject matter to speak for itself.