Her

Life

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. 

  • Twenty-two-year-old Miss E. Alice Austen poses in her Sunday best - a smart overskirt, and a hat decorated with white lilacs. She holds a parasol and a silver change purse. Photo taken in June 1888 by Captain Oswald Müller.
  • The photographer's mother, Alice Cornell Austen Munn, in the garden at "Clear Comfort," twenty years after being abandoned by her English husband. The black cat was named Tristan because her daughter enjoyed the American première of Wagner's opera. (Mamma & cat. September 6, 1887).
  • Eighteen-year-old Alice, holding the pneumatic cable to release her camera's shutter by remote control, makes a portrait of herself, her dog Punch, Auntie Minn and Minn's husband, Oswald Müller. 1884.
  • Self-portrait of 26-year-old Alice, posing on the porch in her favorite yellow dress with red trim. (E.A.A., full length, with fan. Fine day, in shade on piazza. Monday, Sept. 19th, Perken lense, 32 Stop, 3 secs.)
  • ("The thousand and one"). Much more popular than South Beach up the shore, Midland Beach attracted crowds from all areas of the city. They came to enjoy the band concerts, ferris wheel and amusements of the arcade on the boardwalk, as well as the waves and sand.
  • Two contestants in the ladies' doubles tennis tournament concentrate on victory at the Staten Island Ladies Club. (S.I.L.C. Tournament. Miss Cahill & Miss McKinley. Fine sunny day. 3:30 pm, Wednesday, Sept. 28th, 1892. Stanley, Waterbury lense, 50 ft. One plate went off too soon).
  • Violet Ward (left) and gymnast Daisy Elliott, who helped Violet with her book on cycling for ladies, prepare to mount their vehicles in the driveway of the Wards' house.
  • Surrounded by an exhibition of her life's work, and greeted by three hundred guests and old friends, the photographer enjoys Alice Austen Day in Richmondtown, October 9, 1951. (Photo by Yale Joel, Time-Life Picture Agency, © Time Inc.)
  • Alice Austen, sitting, and Gertrude Tate. The couple stuck together, through good times and bad.
  • Oliver Jensen visits 85-year-old Alice Austen at the poor house, the Staten Island Farm Colony, in the early summer of 1951. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time-Life Picture Agency, © Time Inc.)
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