"Trude and I, masked, short skirts," by Alice Austen
Alice Austen in 1888.
Alice Austen was one of the first American women to become a photographer, and the style she developed anticipated the genre of documentary photography. She lived the life of an independent, genteel woman during the Victorian Age, but she also defied convention and challenged stereotypes in both her work and in her personal life.
Alice Austen was born in Staten Island in 1866 to Alice Cornell Austen and Edward Stopford Munn. Her father abandoned the family before she was born. With no income and no husband, Alice's mother moved back to her own parent's home, which was known as Clear Comfort.
Austen became interested in photography when her uncle, Oswald Müller, brought home a large-format camera; she was 10 years old. She mastered the camera, including its bulky dry glass plates, by the time she was eighteen. Her uncle Peter was a chemistry professor and he showed Alice how to use the developing chemicals in a darkroom. Peter and Oswald converted a closet on the second floor into Alice's darkroom. Later she developed her prints inside her family's home. The earliest extant photograph by her is dated 1884.
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.
Austen captured a visual record of family life during the Gilded Age. She created images of friends and family at home, in private clubs, on picnics, sailing, lounging in gardens, and living the refined life, yet she was not satisfied with documenting her life of privilege. She also captured sweeping views of New York harbor and daily life in New York City.
View of Central Park, by Alice Austen
Austen traveled into Manhattan to take photographs of commuters, immigrants, and laborers.
Chimney Sweep, by Alice Austen
In addition, she documented her own trips throughout the Northeastern United States, to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), and across Europe. Austen's photographic forte was capturing people and places as they appeared.
Alice Austen (on fencepost), taking a photograph
Austen included women in her photographs and recorded the private world she shared with her women friends, including Gertrude Eccleston, Julia Marsh, Sue Ripley, Violet Ward, and Daisy Elliott. Much of Austen's photographic work recorded the life she lived on her own terms with her women friends--all of whom lived as independent "new women."
Alice and Girlfriends, by Alice Austen
Austen's images of her women friends provide evidence of homoeroticism. Such photographs as those titled Mrs. Snivley and Julia and I in Bed (both from 1890), Julia Martin, Julia Bredt, and Self Dressed Up as Men (1891), and The Darned Club make manifest Austen's ability to alter the stereotypical vision of women.
Julia Martin, Julia Bredt, and Austen as Men, by Alice Austen
Alice's Boyfriends, by Alice Austen
Although Alice Austen was certainly not the first lesbian photographer, she was the first who is known to have photographed lesbians who could be recognized as lesbians. Using the camera's power of authenticity, Austen photographed her friends in a way that seems remarkably overt for 1900.
Austen's photograph of Violet Ward on her porch with a friend is highly reminiscent of the style of family portraits at the time. Violet and her friend are clearly posing as a couple.
Austen was the first lesbian photographer to honestly depict lesbian lifestyles in her work. She photographed herself and her friends (called "the Darned Club" because they excluded men) smoking, bicycling, dressed as men, and in loving embraces.
Violet Ward 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.
In 1899 Austen met Gertrude Amelia Tate (ca 1871-1962) of Brooklyn, who was to be her long-time companion. Tate moved into Clear Comfort during 1917. The two women lived together and supported each other for fifty-five years.
Alice Austen and her lover for more than five decades, Gertrude Tate.
Alice lived off the income from the money left by her grandfather but all was lost in the stock market crash of 1929. Alice at age 63 had no income. She tried serving tea on her lawn with Gertrude for a few years but it never provided enough money to pay her bills. She began to sell off the home's silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money for food and fuel. She eventually mortgaged the house which had been owned outright, but lost the title in 1945. Forced to move, Alice sold her few remaining possessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey.
While moving Austen asked Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society for assistance. He came across her collection of glass plate negatives and took as many as he could to the basement of the old court house for storage. On June 24, 1950, she was declared a pauper and was admitted to Staten Island's poorhouse, known officially as the New York City Farm Colony.
Manhattan, by Alice Austen
In 1950 Picture Press started a project on the history of American women. Oliver Jensen of Picture Press sent out a standard form letter to various archives and historical societies, asking if any had interesting images for the project. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society responded and invited someone to look through 3,500 uncatalogued Alice Austen glass plate negatives.
Jensen subsequently published several of Alice's photos in the book "Revolt of Women." He also wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and six pages of Alice's travel photos in Holiday magazine. The publications raised more than $4,000. Alice Austen's third of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the Farm Colony and back into a private nursing home.
In 1951 Alice Austen was the guest of honor at an exhibition of her photographs at the Richmondtown museum where over 300 guests had been invited to celebrate Alice Austen Day. She said: "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people."
Alice lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died peacefully in her sleep on June 9, 1952.
Upon Gertrude's death the Tate family learned that Austen and Gertrude had wanted to be buried together. The Tate family, however, refused to honor the women's wishes.
Alice Austen produced around 9,000 photographs of which some 3,500 still exist; most are housed at Clear Comfort. The house was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976, one month after the 110th anniversary of Austen's birth.
Clear Comfort, Alice Austen House and Museum
Clear Comfort is decorated in the manner of the late nineteenth century and includes Austen's darkroom. However, the board of Austen House discourages the use of the collection in order to study lesbian history. Most of her lesbian photography has been suppressed and is difficult to come by. Although Austen and Tate lived their lives rather openly, there have been attempts to force them into the closet posthumously. Barbara Hammer's 1998 documentary, The Female Closet focuses in part on Austen's life and discusses the Austen House board's refusal to allow scholars to use the collection in order to study her sexuality.
Self Portrait, by Alice Austen