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Alice Austen: Audacious Artist

By Tara Mae

Alice Austen was a New York photographer who focused her work on documenting the people who mainstream society ostracized or ignored. Sometimes considered an amaetuer, Austen exhibited, copyrighted, and published her photos, and accepted different commissions, including recording the people and conditions of immigrant quarantine sites in the 1880s. The biggest influence on Austen’s artistry was her relationship with Gertrude Tate, which lasted 53 years. 

Born to a prominent, wealthy family, Elizabeth Alice Austen grew up in luxury. Her great grandfather, Peter Townsend, owned the Sterling Iron Works, known for forging the Hudson River Chain that was used to hamper British ships in the American Revolution. After her father abandoned them, Austen and her mother moved into the family home, Clear Comfort, on Staten Island. Austen reportedly discovered photography at the age of 10, with the support of her family. One uncle, a sea captain, allowed her to play with his camera. Another uncle, a chemist, taught her how to process the glass plates she exposed. 

A second floor closet of the house was converted into a dark room, where, over the course of 45 years, she developed more than 7.000 photos chronicling the shifts and changes of New York City. As Austen developed her craft, she catalogued her home life and the natural world. A strong athlete, Austen photographed two newly invented activities: tennis and cycling. She and her friend Violet Ward collaborated on a book, Bicycling for Ladies, that illustrated the proper and improper ways to coast, turn, and dismount from a bike. Austen’s model was another friend, Daisy Elliott, a gymnastics instructor who then asked Austen to photograph her students with the calisthenics equipment in her gym. 

Credited with being one of the first American female photographers to work outside the domestic realm. As her passion and skill progressed, Austen focused much of her efforts on documenting social issues and milieus that were otherwise somewhat hidden from public view. The subjects she chose to capture reflect her own repudiation of Victorian norms for “proper” women. Austen routinely loaded 50 pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle and went out to take pictures.

Austen helped develop the genre of documentary photography. She chose to photograph street vendors and immigrants. Austen also chronicled the lives of her non-traditional friends and acquaintances, offering insights into intimate friendships between Victorian women. Among the first female photographers to work outside a studio, Austen produced what are thought to be some of the best images from the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Austen (r) gazes up at Tate (l) in front of display of her photos

She was commissioned by a member of the U.S. Public Health Service to create a photo series of the New York City immigrant quarantine station that was located near Comfort Cottage. Austen was so intrigued by the experience that she returned to the site every year for the next decade. She photographed the buildings, laboratories, equipment, and people of the locations. This photo series was exhibited in Buffalo at the Pan American Exposition of 1901. 

Her photographs of women were largely meant to be private. The pictures showed her and her friends participating in scandalous behavior like smoking, for which they could have been arrested. Many of her photographs challenge traditional gender roles. Austen depicted women embracing and dressed in drag. While her public photography dealt with elements of social welfare, her private photography, meant for self-expression, was a quiet act of social revolution. These images ignored or subverted the idea of how women were supposed to look and behave. 

Unafraid to appear “unladylike,” Austen did not allow conventions to impede any aspect of her life. Independently wealthy, this status provided Austen freedom from certain societal pressures and insulated her from full impact of negative criticisms. During the 1890s, accompanied only by her photography supplies, Austen traveled around the East Coast and to Europe, where she spent her summers. In 1899, while visiting the Catskills, Austen met Tate, a professional dance instructor and kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn. 

They fell in love and would remain together until Austen’s death in 1952. Tate began visiting Austen at Clear Cottage, accompanied Austen on trips abroad, and in 1917, moved in with her. Tate was a partner, inspiration, and muse. Tate’s mother and sister disapproved of her “wrong devotion” to Austen, but they remained committed to each other. 

Although Austen lost most of her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929, she held onto Clear Comfort until 1945 when she and Tate were evicted. Having never approved of their relationship, their families used this opportunity to separate them. From 1945 to 1952, Tate visited Austen weekly at the Staten Island Farm Colony, where she then resided. Historian Oliver Jensen discovered Austen’s work in 1951 and money raised from the publication of her photos was used to fund private nursing care. Austen died on June 9, 1952. Her and Tate’s final wish to be buried together was rejected by their families. 

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