Bringing New Perspectives Into Focus at New York’s Alice Austen House
With each flash of a camera shutter, thousands of messages are forever documented within an image. These expressions are memorable not only for those in front of the camera, but also for the person behind the lens, who brings with them unique insights and perspectives. In the case of photographer Alice Austen, the abundance of work preserved during and after her lifetime provides a critical snapshot of a changing world.
In a life that spanned from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, Elizabeth Alice Austen both witnessed and participated in a time of societal transformation. After her father abandoned her mother and her at a young age, Austen moved into her grandparents’ home on Staten Island, New York, known as “Clear Comfort.” Though it might not have been recognized at the time, Austen’s early years at Clear Comfort began a lifetime of boundary breaking.
“One of the ways we talk about Alice in terms of being a very modern woman and how the story is relevant to [today] is how she was raised by a single mother. She did not take her father’s surname, and retained ‘Austen’ for the rest of her life,” says Victoria Munro, executive director of the Alice Austen House. Though her father was never fully in the picture, Austen’s aunt and uncle also lived at Clear Comfort with her, creating an interesting dynamic where she was the only child in a household full of adults. “They really doted upon Alice,” continues Munro. “She was the center of attention. Since they were relatively wealthy, she was able to pursue any hobbies or interests that she wanted.”
At around 10 years old, Austen’s uncle, Oswald Muller, brought her a dry plate camera from abroad. Her maternal uncle, Peter Townsend Austen, was also interested in photography. As a chemist, Peter was able to teach Alice how to develop her photographs through chemical processing. Together, Muller and Peter built her a dark room.
“She was always very technically minded and interested in the mechanics of things,” says Munro. “By the time Austen was about 18 years old, she was highly proficient in photography. She was [also] the first woman on Staten Island to own a car and could fix it herself—she even traveled with a toolkit. She was very involved in photographing the book, Bicycling for Young Ladies, at a time when cycling was a brand new technology that allowed women to explore increased freedoms.”
With a solid skillset in her grasp, Austen began venturing outward with her photography. In the early 1890s, Dr. Doty of the U.S. Public Health Service asked her to document the facilities at the Ellis Island quarantine stations. On these quarantined islands, immigrants had to pass health inspections before officially entering the country. Austen was so fascinated by the equipment and people she encountered, she often returned to visit over the next 10 years. At the turn of the century, she also began exploring immigrant life on the streets of New York City, carrying nearly fifty pounds of equipment on her back during her regular trek from Staten Island to Manhattan.
“What we can see from all of Austen’s photographs and various descriptions we have of her life was that she was quite a fearless trailblazer,” says Munro. “Immigration was at its all-time high during the late 19th century, so the impact was huge; it was massively changing the face of New York. Aside from Austen being on assignment to photograph the quarantined islands, all we know of why she wanted to photograph immigrants was her natural curiosity.”
At the time, the only other major photographer working with similar subjects was Jacob Riis.
Austen’s genuine interest in recording the change of the time led her to create images of everything from children at work, to messengers, to fruit stand workers. In her signature portraiture style, these subjects were often posed or at least aware of their photograph being taken.
Not only did Austen create images of public and city life, she also documented upper-middle-class Victorian society. Austen took over 7,000 photographs depicting life on Staten Island, including portraits of friends and family at home or in the more elite circles of high society. Still, she found a way to use photography to defy restraints on expected gender roles. “There are specific photographs where she challenges the notions of how a woman should be in Victorian life, where she’s showing her ankles or her underwear; there are cross-dressing photographs. And so on one hand, she very much participated in Victorian society. She then turned around to reject and mock Victorian restrictions on women,” explains Munro.
Of the many ways Austen broke with tradition, one of the most obvious is through her decades-long relationship with Gertrude Tate. The two women met in 1899 during a trip to the Catskill Mountains, and by 1917, Tate had officially moved into Clear Comfort to be with Austen. For the next 12 years leading up to the 1929 stock market crash, the women shared their lives together as partners while Austen continued her photography. Once the Great Depression hit, Austen and Tate essentially lost their savings and, by 1945, were unable to live together at Clear Comfort.
“While Austen might not have been trying to change people’s opinions of LGBTQ couples, she [still] does; her work supports that. Maybe she was a little bit of an accidental activist.”Victoria Munro
When Tate went to live with family in Brooklyn, they refused to accept Austen due to what they deemed a “wrong devotion.” Austen was eventually relegated to a poor farm on Staten Island, and though the couple had always made their wishes to be buried together in the Austen family plot clear, Tate’s family never relented. Despite every obstacle, Tate continued to visit Austen on Staten Island until her death in 1952, indicating a clear commitment to their relationship.
Today, the Alice Austen House in New York City is at the forefront of LGBTQ interpretation. In 2017, the National Register for Historic Places updated its designation to include the home as a significant site of LGBTQ history, and as part of the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program, the museum strongly believes in the power of thoughtful expression.
“We’re undergoing much renovation on our permanent spaces in the house so that we can re-interpret Alice’s life with the correct stories and details,” says Munro. “What we have that’s the most revealing [about Austen and Tate’s relationship] is the way Austen’s work moved and changed from the time she met Gertrude Tate throughout their relationship. We own a photograph album that she created for Tate from when they met in 1899. Most of the photographs Austen took of her and Tate are largely unseen, and so our mission within our new permanent display is to showcase them. There’s a shift in her work away from going into Manhattan and photographing immigrants, to it becoming more photographs of their life together.”
Not only is the Alice Austen House reflecting on how its own internal programming can become more inclusive, it is also actively partnering with the surrounding community. According to Munro, the house has recently received an “Expanding Audiences” grant from Staten Island Arts to implement inter-generational LGBTQ photographic storytelling. Efforts to partner with the Pride Center of Staten Island and after-school clubs like the Gender Sexuality Alliance have helped to expand their reach.
For Munro, this type of work brings an extra layer of meaning with it. “Being a member of the LGBTQ community myself, I strongly feel that so often our stories are just put on temporary display for Pride Month, and Austen’s story is lifelong. We should have it on permanent display not just for the LGBTQ community to see this history, but for everyone to see these stories and these places as permanent sites of note. It’s important to have sites that are integrated into the community and that are highlighting these stories more and more.”
The entirety of Austen’s life, though pinpointed with certain highs and lows, engages audiences with the power of staying unapologetically true to oneself. “While Austen might not have been trying to change people’s opinions of LGBTQ couples, she [still] does; her work supports that,” says Munro. “Maybe she was a little bit of an accidental activist.”