Alice Austen

About Alice Austen

About Alice Austen

Her Life

Her Life

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.

Alice Austen was introduced to photography at age 10 in 1876. A second-floor closet of her home on the shore line of the New York Narrows Harbor served as her darkroom. In this home studio, which was also one of her photographic muses, she produced over 7,000 photographs of a rapidly changing New York City, making significant contributions to photographic history, documenting New York’s immigrant populations, Victorian women’s social activities, and the natural and architectural world of her travels.

One of America’s first female photographers to work outside of the studio, Austen often transported up to 50 pounds of photographic equipment on her bicycle to capture her world. Her photographs represent street and private life through the lens of a lesbian woman whose life spanned from 1866 to 1952. Austen was a rebel who broke away from the constraints of her Victorian environment and forged an independent life that broke boundaries of acceptable female behavior and social rules.

Austen was independently wealthy for most of her life and has widely been considered an amateur photographer because she did not make her living from photography. However, in addition to completing a paid assignment documenting the people and conditions of immigrant quarantine stations in New York during the 1890’s, Austen copyrighted, exhibited and published her work.

Alice Austen’s life and relationships with other women are crucial to an understanding of her work. Until very recently many interpretations of Austen’s work overlooked her intimate relationships. What is especially significant about Austen’s photographs is that they provide rare documentation of intimate relationships between Victorian women. Her non-traditional lifestyle and that of her friends, although intended for private viewing, is the subject of some of her most critically acclaimed photographs. Austen would spend 53 years in a devoted loving relationship with Gertrude Tate, 30 years of which were spent living together in her home which is now the site of the Alice Austen House Museum and a nationally designated site of LGBTQ history.

Austen’s wealth was lost in the stock market crash of 1929 and she and Tate were finally evicted from their beloved home in 1945. Tate and Austen were separated by family rejection of their relationship and poverty. Austen was moved to the Staten Island Farm Colony where Tate would visit her weekly. In 1951 Austen’s photographs were rediscovered by historian Oliver Jensen and money was raised by the publication of her photographs to place Austen in private nursing home care. On June 9th 1952 Austen passed away. The final wishes of Austen and Tate to be buried together were denied by their families.

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Though she is best known for her documentary work, Austen was an artist with a strong aesthetic sensibility.

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.

Her Work

Her Work

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.

Alice on Fencepost
Alice Austen perched on a fencepost while Gertrude Tate quizzically watches the second photographer.

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 Swinburne 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 Swinburne 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.

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.  

 


 

“From the outside, this charming cottage looks like any other late 17th-century Dutch Colonial House. Step inside, and you’ll soon discover it was the home base for one of New York’s most celebrated female photographers.” 

Atlas Obscura, 2018