The Photography of Alice Austen

Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) was an American photographer working on Staten Island.

Austen in Richmondtown, Staten Island on October 9, 1951, for her photo exhibition

Austen was introduced to photography at age 10 in 1876. A second-floor closet of her home on the shoreline 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.

Alice’s photographic skills and eye for composition are readily evident in her early photographs, many of which capture what she called “the larky life.” In posed vignettes and carefully arranged portraits, she recorded happy gatherings with friends and family, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s. Hundreds of her photos document the exterior, interior, and grounds of her beloved family home, Clear Comfort, located on the Staten Island shoreline in the Rosebank neighbourhood.

Austen met Gertrude Tate, a kindergarten teacher and professional dancing instructor from Brooklyn, during an excursion to the Catskills in 1899. They then began an intimate relationship that would last until Austen’s death 53 years later.

Alice’s joyful life took a tragic turn when she lost her savings in the 1929 stock market crash. She and her longtime companion Gertrude Tate did their best to remain financially solvent, but in 1945 Alice and Gertrude were evicted from Clear Comfort. During this time, when Alice was forced to sell most of her possessions, she contacted Loring McMillen, director of the Staten Island Historical Society and an acquaintance of many years, and gave him thousands of her glass plate negatives for the Historical Society. In 1950, Alice went to live in the New York City Farm Colony, a home for destitute individuals, but the following year she was able to move to a private home for aged residents.

The Darned Club, Alice Austen. Collection of Staten Island Historic Society, 1891-10-29, From the collection of Alice Austen House

Austen often photographed her non-traditional friends, creating a unique group of provocative images of a social life that was out of the ordinary for its time. A number of her most intimate images challenge gender roles. Although it is not possible today to know the exact nature of the relationships in her photographs, several stand out for their transgressive character. “The Darned Club” shows two female couples with their arms around each other’s waists. In another photograph, Alice and two friends are dressed in men’s attire; Alice sports a cigarette in one hand, and her friend Julia Martin is seated with her umbrella protruding from between her legs in a particularly phallic manner.

Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, Alice Austen. Collection of Staten Island Historic Society, 1891-10-15, From the collection of Alice Austen House

In June 2017 the Alice Austen House, where Austen and her life partner, Gertrude Tate, lived together for nearly 30 years, marked its national designation as a site of LGBTQ history. The museum’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places was amended to include LGBTQ history as an area of significance.

Her house currently houses a photography museum dedicated to her life and work as well as exhibits showcasing modern photographers.


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