Photographer Alice Austen: From Riches to Rags

Hi All! Now that the itch to write is in me, and I’ve got the juices flowing, I’ve realized I need to focus this blog and give it a purpose beyond just being my sounding board and digital diary. Who wants to hear me bitch and moan seven days a week? Robert gets to experience that, and I’m sure he’d be more than willing to tell you it ain’t fun after a while.

So, in the spirit of nerdiness and to feed my passion for history (particularly New York City history), I’m going to head down that path. If you’ve ever walked around the City with me, you know I have a love for all this old, interesting, and architectural. I want this blog to grow and evolve as my knowledge of the city grows and evolves, and I also want it to serve as a sort of repository for any photos, documents, and stories I find interesting. I may write an article about something I learned. I may post an article I read elsewhere. And I may just post cool photos that either I took or I found somewhere int he bowels of teh interwebz.

I hope you enjoy it and that you’ll bear with me as I figure out what I’m doing on here!

Cheers!

Alice Austen in 1951, at age 85

Alice Austen was born at Woodbine Cottage in the Rosebank section of Staten Island in 1866. Her father had abandoned the family shortly before her birth, leaving her single mother no choice but to move back in to her family home, known as “Clear Comfort.” The house, originally built in 1690, sheltered not only young Alice and her mother, but also her grandparents, her uncle Peter, her aunt Minnie, and Minnie’s husband Oswald Müller, a ship’s captain.

Clear Comfort as photographed by Alice. Her Grandfather sits on the porch.

The only child in a house full of adults, Alice was the center of attention. As such, when her Uncle Oswald brought home a camera from one of his sea voyages, Alice was allowed to experiment with it. She quickly mastered the bulky device. Her Uncle Peter, a newly-appointed professor of chemistry at Rutgers University, would teach his enthusiastic young niece the processes and techniques necessary to develop her glass plates into negatives and those negatives into prints. Her uncles further encouraged the budding photographer by building her very own dark room in an upstairs closet at Clear Comfort.

Alice in 1888, at age 22

The Austen family was sufficiently wealthy enough to afford Alice a life of leisurely indulgence. Through the 1880s and 90s, she lugged her photographic equipment around the dirt roads of rural Staten Island, capturing everyday scenes along the beaches and throughout the parks of the island, which was not yet a part of New York City. She eventually began leaving the confines of Richmond County, traveling upstate, to Vermont, Massachusetts, and even to the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

Alice perched on a fence post to take a photo. Gertrude Tate stands by her side.

As her skills in photography continued to develop, Alice captured scenes of everyday life quite unlike the stuffy, posed scenes more popular among her contemporaries. Thusly, Alice’s photographic collection offers an unusually intimate peek into 19th-century American culture.



Top Row L-R: Double-Decker Bus, Shoestring Peddler, Postman
Bottom Row L-R: Pretzel Vendor, Sponge Peddler, Street Sweeper
All photos taken in 1896, all courtesy of NYPL

In 1899, while staying at the “Twilight Rest” hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, Alice met Gertrude Tate of Brooklyn, who was convalescing there after a bout of Typhoid fever. Twenty-eight-year-old Gertrude was a kindergarten teacher and dance instructor who worked to support her younger sister and widowed mother. Her youth and exuberance enchanted Alice, and the two quickly formed a close bond. Gertrude began paying frequent visits to the Austen home on Staten Island, and the two took numerous extended trips to Europe together. In 1917, over her mother and sister’s objections to her “wrong devotion” to Alice, Gertrude moved in with her at Clear Comfort.

Alice and Gertrude

All the while, Alice continued snapping photographs, ultimately amassing a collection of nearly 8,000 prints. Travel, gardening, social calls, and photography consumed much of the first six decades of Alice’s life. She lived entirely off of the interest earned on her grandfather’s Wall Street investments and was thusly caught unprepared in 1929 when the great stock market crash eliminated her capital and her livelihood. At age sixty-three, Alice was left broke and struggling for survival.

Alice and Gertrude in later years

She and Gertrude began slowly selling off the home’s silver and artwork. Eventually, Alice mortgaged and re-mortgaged Clear Comfort until she lost it to the bank in 1945. She sold her remaining possessions to a dealer from New Jersey for $600, but not before having her thousands of glass-plate negatives put into storage with the Staten Island Historical Society.

Alice and Gertrude moved into a small apartment together, but ultimately couldn’t afford the rent. Gertrude’s family offered to let her move in with them, but refused to let Alice join her. In 1950, eighty-four-year-old Alice took an oath declaring herself a pauper, and moved into the Staten Island Farm Colony, a local poor house.

Staten Island Farm Colony

Unbeknownst to Alice, though, a publishing company called Picture Press was looking to put together a book examining the history of American women. The Staten Island Historical Society invited them to visit and to look through the dusty boxes of negatives that Alice had stored there years before. Realizing they had stumbled upon a great and undiscovered American female photographer, the publishers quickly signed a deal with the Society. Alice’s photographs were published in their book, The Revolt of Women, and multi-page spreads of her world travels appeared in Life and Holiday magazines. Ultimately, proceeds from her photos’ printings amounted to more than $4,000. Alice’s one-third share of that haul allowed her to leave the indignity of the poor house and move into a private nursing home.

Alice in 1951 with Oliver Jensen, a partner at Picture Press.

On October 9, 1951, Alice was invited to visit an exhibition of her photographs and to meet with several hundred of her admirers. At the celebration, dubbed Alice Austen Day and covered by LIFE Magazine, she is quoted as saying, “I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people.”

Alice beaming up at Gertrude at “Alice Austen Day” in 1951.

Alice died peacefully in her sleep on June 9, 1952, and was laid to rest at Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. She and Gertrude had hoped to be buried together, but Gertrude’s family denied them that wish. In death, Alice’s photos are the only proof of the fifty years these women shared together.

Alice buried at Moravian Cemetery, Staten Island.

The Austen home at Clear Comfort, originally built in 1690, fell into disrepair after Alice & Gertrude vacated it in 1945. In the 1960s, with the threat of high-rise apartments replacing it becoming ever more real, a group of concerned neighbors banded together to have the house registered as a historic landmark and to restore it. Alice’s hundreds of photos of the house and grounds made a near-exact restoration possible, right down to the miniature 1879 Statue of Liberty on the mantelpiece given to the family as a gift of thanks for contributing money to the construction of the real Statue’s base.


Left: Alice in front of Clear Comfort in a 1951 LIFE Magazine spread
Right: The Alice Austen House as it appears today

As time has passed, Alice’s talent behind the lens has become increasingly appreciated and celebrated. Clear Comfort, now known as Alice Austen House, is operated as a museum highlighting her work and life. And her relationship with Gertrude has received long overdue attention. In 2011, Sundog Theater Company put on a play entitled “If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story,” celebrating Alice, her lifelong partner, and the impact of their relationship on her life and work.

“Think of it,” said Matt Titone, a Staten Island assemblyman and financial backer of the play, “before there was Gloria Steinem, there was Alice Austen; before there was Stonewall, there was Alice.” Her importance to the worlds of feminism, lesbianism, history, and photography can’t be overstated.

Alice Austen House Museum can be reached by taking the Staten Island Ferry to S.I. and riding the S51 bus to Hylan Blvd. Then just walk 2 blocks toward the water. The museum is open Tue-Sun 11-5 and the grounds are open until dusk. Suggested donation is $3.

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About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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One Response to Photographer Alice Austen: From Riches to Rags

  1. Rob Taillon says:

    Awesome story Keith! I love the history that you continue to uncover and share. Keep it up!

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