ARTIST: Alice Austen

At Alice Austen House Museum

My daughter and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly at the Pug Fest at Alice Austen House Museum last weekend. Not only are we pug fans (and owners) but we are fans of Alice's life work as a pioneering 19th Century photographer. See more about Alice on this blog here and the Alice Austen House Museum website here.

View to nyc from alice austen house staten Island. Photo © Liza Cowan. 2012View From Alice Austen House Museum, across The Narrows. Photo ©Liza Cowan

This view across the Narrows would have been very different in Alice's day. But it is still gorgeous. 

Staten island circa 1900 New York City (New York, United States) _ Introduction -- Britannica Online EncyclopediaStaten Island circa 1900. You can see The Narrows in the upper right.

 

The narrows with willa and saki ©Liza CowanWilla and Saki in the water at Alice Austen House, Staten Island NY. ©Liza Cowan

 

Panoramic view from alice austen house ©liza cowan 2012View from Alice Austen House across the water. ©Liza Cowan


Alice Austen In Jeans

At the Alice Austen House Museum, Pug Day. What a beautiful day to be at Clear Comfort, Alice's Staten Island, NY, house on the water. Here, my daughter and I recreate Alice's self portrait with her pug, Punch. I bet Alice would have loved to be able to wear jeans and boots, and keep her hair short. Imagine lugging hundreds of pounds of camera equipment around wearing a corset and  floor length dress. Kudos to Alice for managing so beautifully.

 

Alice, punch, willa, saki.photos ©Aliceausten.org and ©Liza Cowan

Alice Austen and Punch, self portrait. Willa and Saki by Liza Cowan


Alice Austen in LIFE Magazine, 1951

Just a few months before she died, Alice Austen made her second appearance in LIFE Magazine.

Alice Austen Day Life Magazine
Alice Austen Day. Life Magazine, October 29, 1951

"Alice Austen, America's first great woman photographer, had been rescued from the poorhouse and oblivion by the sale of her superb collections of pictures (LIFE, Sept. 24). But until this month the 85-year-old artist had never had a public showing of her work. On Oct. 7, however, the Staten Island Historical Society, custodian of her photographs, celebrated "Alice Austen Day". More than 300 of Miss Austen's old and new friends crowded into the museum to look at her pictures and say hello to her once more. Miss Austen herself was an hour late. Worn out by a television appearance two days earlier, she at first refused to come. But her friends convinced her that she would enjoy herself, and enjoy herself she did. There were speeches and orchids and gifts and refreshments, but above all, there were friends. Some, like Mrs. Charles Barton had posed for her in the old days on Staten Island. Others, like Coapes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society, helped win recognition for her work. Miss Gertrude Tate, her closest friend, had lived with her for 27 years at the Austen home until the two ladies lost their money and the home was sold.

The old lady in the wheelchair knew how to get the most out of every moment, although she mostly wept when Mrs. Barton bent over to kiss her hand. As the newspaper and magazine cameras recorded the afternoon, Photographer Alice Austen said proudly, "I'd be taking those pictures myself if I were 100 years younger." When the pictures and the refreshments were over, she went back to the private nursing home where she now lives, a little tired by the festivities but glad that she had lived to see Alice Austen Day."

Alice Austen and trude in LIFE MAG 1951
Alice and Trude, now Mrs. Charles Barton, donned corset covers and petticoats and posed for this wicked picture taken 60 years ago on Staten Island. Alice Austen, LIFE Magazine 1951

 

Alice Austen, Deeply Moved Mrs. Barton, LIFE Magazine 1951
Deeply Moved, Alice Austen bites her lips as old friend Mrs. Barton impulsively kisses her hand. Mrs. Barton now lives in New Jersey but visits Alice often.

 

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, 1951, LIFE Magazine
HIGHLY PLEASED, Alice Austen beams up at Gertrude Tate, who lived in Austen home, took trips to Europe with her, nursed her during arthritis attacks.

For more on Alice Austen see HERE  and also visit the Alice Austen House Museum Website


ALICE AUSTEN: video interview with directors of Alice Austen House Museum

 

Alice Austen fans...great news. The Alice Austen House has a beautiful new website and Facebook page, and is proud to be one of the only museums in the US devoted to a Lesbian. Yes, that's right. They are proud of it. As they should be. Here's an interview with Alice Austen House directors Carl Rutberg and  Ann Marie MacDonald on New York City TV show, City Talk. 

You will note that they talk about Alice as a Lesbian, which is great, yay, and that they discuss the first time Alice was "outed" at the 1996 NY Public Library Stonewall Aniversary Exhibit. Now, we know this is not true, because DYKE magazine ran an article about Alica as a Lesbian in 1976. However, they filmed this interview before I posted the Alice article here at SeeSaw and  at the DYKE A Quarterly Annotated Online Archive...so we forgive them for not knowing, right? Right. Because Dr. Rutberg got in touch with us immediately, and we have been emailing ever since. He now knows that we had the scoop on Alice. And as he said in a Facebook comment to me,  "We want to make sure the LGBTQ community rallies around Alice"

And we will. 

So go to the website and Facebook page, and if there's still time, you can vote HERE for the Alice Austen House to get a $100,000 grant from American Express.


ALICE AUSTEN, visionary 19th Century photographer

Here's a reprint of an article written decades ago in DYKE A Quarterly,  a magazine of history and social commentary.  I published with Penny House from 1976-1979.  Copies of the  magazines are now housed in the library at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City, and also at The Schleisinger Library at Radcliffe College, which also has the collection of all the ephemera and collateral materials for the magazine that we kept over the years.

 

I know that you, my regular SeeSaw readers, will be particularly interested in this article about 19th Century pioneer photographer, Alice Austen. originally published in 1976.

 

Dyke No 3 p 34DYKE, A Quarterly. No 3. p 34.  1976. Alice Austen

By Penny House and Liza Cowan, written & published in 1976

Alice Austen was a Lesbian born on Staten Island, NY in 1866. She started taking photographs at the age of twelve and continued until the nineteen thirties. She was an enthusiastic athlete, excelling in swimming, cycling, boating, golf and tennis in an age when women were just being allowed to do any sports at all. She was an excellent mechanic who with her lover, Gertrude Tate, and other friends, took long car journeys in a time when there were almost no paved roads. 

Dyke No 3 p 35. Alice Austen and her dog PunchAlice Austen and her dog Punch. Alice leaving for the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Alice is holding the concealed bulb of the remote shutter release. DYKE A Quarterly No. 3 p 37

She thoroughly documented her own life and that of her friends, where were well-to-do young women, both Lesbian and straight, and who were straining against the last remnants of Victorian morality. She photographed extensively the immigrants and street life of the lower east side of New York City. The style of her photographs was unusually realistic for her time.

Alice austen photo of violet ward and her lover. Dyke a quarterly no 3 pAlice Austen Photo. Violet Ward and her lover. DYKE A Quarterly, no. 3 p 36

In 1929 she lost all her money. She and Gertrude supported themselves by selling their furniture, renting rooms in their home, running a tea room, and by the income from Gertrude's dance classes, which she taught until she was in her late seventies. They were finally forced to leave their home on Staten Island in the nineteen forties. They moved into a small apartment, but soon were forced to separate. Alice, 83 years old, suffered from severe arthritis and Gertrude had a difficult time caring for her. Gertrude's younger straight sister, who had long tried to separate the two, took advantage of Alice's ill health and the morality of the time which dictated a two bedroom apartment which they could not afford. Gertrude went to live with her sister and Alice to a nursing home. Gertrude visited regularly, bu they were both very lonely. Alice was kicked out of several different nursing homes for her too independent nature, and at 84 was admitted to the hospital ward of the Staten Island poorhouse.

Her plate glass negatives had been sold to the Staten Island Historical Society, and in 1951 were "discovered" by a photographic historian. He sold some of the photographs to magazines and turned the money over to Gertrude, who moved Alice to a pleasanter home Alice began to be recognized for her life long work as a photographer. A year later, in June of 1952, she died, sitting in her wheelchair in the sun. Gertrude lived on for ten years, and when she died her sister was unable to bury her next to Alice, as they had wished.

Alice Austen photo of Violet Ward and Daisy EliotViolet Ward and Daisy Eliot. Photo by Alice Austen. Violet was a childhood friend of Alice's. Daisy Eliot was a professional gymnast. Violet, an enthusiastic cyclist, invented a mechanism for bicycles that was universally adopted. Alice took the photographs for Violet's book, Bicycling for Ladies, published in 1896. Daisy was the model.


Alice Austen, Bessie Strong's Bedroom, in DYKE A Quarterly no 3, 1976.Bessie Strong's Bedroom. Bessie was a friend of Alice's. One of the special aspects of Alice's work is that she was interested in documenting the the intimate details of young women's lives, where few other photographers were willing or able to do so. Note Alice's photographs tacked up on the walls. DYKE A Quarterly No 3, 1976


 THE PHOTOGRAPHS

Of the estimated seven to eight thousand glass plate negatives that Alice took, approximately one half are known to survive. Alice was a stickler for detail, often making her friends pose for hours and hours until she could get the exact expression, setting and light she wanted. She carefully marked the envelope for each glass plate with the time, date, place, exposure and lens type.

 

Alice Austen, newsgirl on NYC's lower east side from DYKE  A Quarterly no 3 p 40Alice Austen, Newsgirl on NYC's Lower East Side. DYKE A Quarterly No 3, 1976

Alice carried nearly fifty pounds of photographic equipment on her journeys. She always liked to have at least two cameras with her, as each camera could take only one size print. No enlargements were possible in those days.

"Alice luckily was a tall and strong woman, perfectly capable of carrying her own heavy camera, tripod, and box of plates...She spent hours on end in her closet -like darkroom, developing plates and 'toning' and 'fixing' her prints...Because there was no running water in the house when she was young, she carried [the plates] all downstairs and out into the garden to be rinsed in a basin under the hand operated pump, winter and summer. sometimes she changed the rinse water twenty five times, she recalled. Gertrude Tate attributed Alice's photographic success to a combination of artistic sense, the tirelessness of an athlete, and sheer stubbornness of will."

Alice Austen, portrait of Gertrude Tate, circa 1900, from DYKE A Quarterly, No. 3 p 41Gertrude Tate, Alice's lover, circa 1900. DYKE A Quarterly No. 3, 1976


"The originality of Alice Austen's work becomes strikingly clear when it is compared to that of other photographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women photographers in particular succumbed to the fashion of making photographs to illustrate romantic tales of childhood, and of colonial village life or popular works such as The Rubiayat of Omar Kayyam... Daily American life, if pictured at all, was sentimentalized beyond recognition. The children picked posies of wild flowers in sublime landscapes while their mothers struck classical poses in diaphanous flowing garments of some eclectic style...most photographers of her period did [their] best to prove that photography was a form of art by trying to disguise the fact that [their] pictures were made by mechanical means -the precise fact that Alice enjoyed about photography. Alice's work was out of tune with the fashionable dictates of her time.

Alice Austen, Gertrude Tate circa 1920. From DYKE A Quarterly No 3 p. 42Gertrude, circa 1920. DYKE A Quarterly, No 3, 1976


"Alice Austen...photographed people and places as they actually appeared, focusing her lens so sharply that every small detail of leaf or woodwork, facial expression or lettering on a sign, was recorded. She approached her subjects straightforwardly, without any attempt at the refinement, grace and decorative sense encouraged in the photographic journals of her most productive years...Pictorialists may have portrayed nymph-like young women floating apparently weightless in unruffled ponds and dancing on tiptoe effortlessly through flower filled fields: Alice Austen recorded her friends in the flannel skirts and woolen stockings of clumsy bathing suits calculated to impede the movements of the strongest swimmers, and she showed them doing  their daily gymnastic exercises to develop the strength their daily lives required. Alice Austen's women ride bicycles and horses, work in the streets and market places and are a vigorous and real as Alice herself."

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate. from DYKE A Quarterly no. 3. p 43Alice and Gertrude. DYKE A Quarterly No. 3. 1976

Thanks to Ann Novotny for help, information and photographs. All quotations are from Ann's book, Alice's World - The Life and Photographs of An American Original: Alice Austen 1866-1952, which will be published this fall by Chatham press. Quotations printed with permission of the author.

Alice austen, that darned club, from DYKE A Quarterly no 3, 1976
Cover photo. Alice and her friends, Trudy, Julia and Sue formed a cooking and sewing club. "The four girls spent so much time in each others company that disgruntled young men referred to 'the darned club,' a name the members delightedly adopted." Alice is on the left, once again holding the remote control shutter release.


Ann is chairwoman of The Friends Of Alice Austen, who are trying to restore Alice's house and turn it into a museum of her life and work. They plan to have rotating exhibits of women photographers. Anyone who is interested or would like to help should write to Friends of Alice Austen, 315 W. 78 Street, New York, Ny 10024 #1,

Photographs courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.

 

Typewriter marks end of original story


 

See more about creating the cover for issue No.3. using Alice's photo That Darned Club, here

DYKE A Quarterly no 3, 1976 photo by Alice AustenDYKE A Quarterly, No. 3. Photo That Darned Club by Alice Austen. Design Liza Cowan

 

The Alice Austen House did come to pass. It is a National Historic Landmark on Staten Island. Ann Novotny died of breast cancer shortly after we wrote our story, but her work and passion lives on. Read about the Alice Austen House HERE.

 

kodak, woman photographer. 1898

For more on women and photography at the turn of the last century try this wonderful blog, Kodak Girl. Kodak invested heavily in marketing their cameras to women, quite successfully. 

 

Bicycling for Ladies, ME WardBicycling for Ladies. ME Ward. Maria Ward aka Violet. See more HERE



how to coast illustration ME Ward Bicycling for Ladies from photo by alice austen
How To Coast. Illustration from Alice Austen photo in Bicycling for Ladies by ME Ward.

 

Frances Benjamin Johnston 1Frances Benjamin Johnston, American photojournalist, took this self portrait with a bicycle. Johnston wrote What A Woman Can Do with a Camera for the Ladies Home Journal in 1897, a year after Bicyling For Ladies was published. Notice the painted on moustache.

The ladies did like to lark about.

And do check out the ALICE AUSTEN HOUSE WEBSITE   

and their Facebook Page, filled with images