Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Alice Auteen

Alice Austen was an American photographer born the 17th of March, 1866.

Austen became interested in photography when her uncle, Oswald Müller, brought home a camera around 1876. Alice’s uncle Peter Townsend Austen was a chemistry professor at Rutgers who taught her photographic processing. Peter and Oswald converted a closet on the second floor into Alice’s darkroom. The earliest extant photograph by her is dated 1884.

Austen roamed around turn-of-the-century New York with camera in hand, capturing street vendors and immigrants. She worked from moving trains and sporting events, creating early action shots, and obsessively recorded the activities of friends and family, as well as her own life. Unafraid to climb a fence post and risk exposing her ankles to get the perfect shot. An avid athlete herself, Austen documented the newly introduced sports of tennis and cycling—even collaborating with a friend on a book depicting the correct positions in which to turn, coast, and dismount a bike. In the 1890s, Austen and her photo equipment travelled around the East Coast and to Europe, where she spent entire summers exploring. Austen produced roughly 8,000 photographs in her lifetime.  In doing so, she helped to pioneer documentary photography.

Clear Comfort served as Austen’s earliest muse. It is where she and her mother moved to after being abandoned by her father. She photographed her home and the family events it played backdrop to. She shot visits to the beach, picnics in the mountains, and bowling parties at a friend’s mansion.

Austen’s knack for photojournalism was perhaps most apparent when she ventured into New York City, making pictures of street sweepers, bootblacks, fishmongers, organ grinders that she had copyrighted at the Library of Congress. The nature of this work, and the fact that she never married or bore children, was hardly typical of a Victorian woman. But because she wasn’t paid for her photographs, Austen considered herself an amateur.

In 1899 Austen met Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871–1962), a kindergarten teacher and dancing instructor of Brooklyn, New York. She became Austen’s lifelong companion. Although their story story is underrepresented, Austen And Tate had a 53year long relationship.

Gertrude visited Alice regularly and they spent holidays together in Europe. She moved in with Alice at Clear Comfort in 1917, overriding her family’s objection over her “wrong devotion” to Alice.They stayed together until, after the Stock Market Crash when they struggled to get by, Gertrude’s family offered housing to Gertrude, and only her, in 1950. They wished to be buried together, but their families refused this wish.

Austen lived off the interest from the money left by her grandfather but the principal was lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and by age 63, she had no income. She began to sell off her silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money to buy food and fuel. She then took out a mortgage on the house which was taken by the bank in 1945. She sold her remaining possessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey and called her friend Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society to take the photos. He stored them at the Third County Courthouse in Richmond town. She then moved to an apartment, then a nursing home. On June 24, 1950 she was declared a pauper and was admitted to New York City Farm Colony, Staten Island’s poorhouse.

 Stapleton Staten Island, c. 1905. Courtesy of Alice Austen House.
Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, Pickards Penny Photo Studio
Courtesy of Staten Island Historical Society.
Alice Austen, 1891.
Alice Austen, Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.  
Alice Austen, Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.  
Alice Austen, Group Apparatus, 1893. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.  
Alice Austen, Group Apparatus, 1893. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.

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