Fine, Bright Day: The Photography of Alice Austen

Alice Austen House

 Alice Austen (1866 - 1952) was one of America's earliest and most prolific female photographers. This exhibition examines the range of Austen’s photography and specifically inserts her into a contemporary context as the modern woman she was. 22 newly printed photographs are paired in this show and accompanied by interpretive text by leading scholars, artists and activists from the LGBTQ and allied community, including: Donald Moffett, Lillian Faderman, Laura Wexler, Richard Meyer, Liza Cowan, Paul Moakley, Keith Glutting, Victoria Munro, JEB, Mitchell Grubler and Sarah Gillespie.

Curated by Victoria Munro. Exhibition on show at the LGBTQ Center, 208 W13 St, New York, NY.    

Three men pose playfully for Alice's camera on the beach in 1895. The man at the right is Alice's uncle. Richard Meyer, LGBTQ art writer and co-author of 'Art and Queer Culture compares this composition with Alice's photo of 3 swan boats in New York's Central park to discuss to the pleasures of Alice Austen's existence, which she referred to as the 'Larky Life'.

This 1891 image of a group of swan boats is described as an elegant mirror of the the 3 men playfully posing at the beach by Richard Meyer. Alice regularly photographed the swan boats, often with her privileged friends and family enjoying central park on summer afternoons. Alice always made notations on her glass plate negative sleeves, this one being Fine, Clear day....These notations are the inspiration for the title of this exhibition.

Photographs 3 and 4 in this exhibition form a pair of young men discussed by artist and aids activist Donald Moffett. This 1892 image titled, Sam on his head in brook below Hector Falls, is taken in Watkins, Upstate New York. Alice spent many summers traveling in upstate New York with friends who would accommodate her passion for photography. We wonder here if Alice asked Sam to pose in position or if she managed to capture a secret moment.

For this distant view of mountains and Hudson River from North Beacon taken in 1890, Donald Moffett describes a "boy looking out to a possible future caught in the warm potential of Alice Austen’s gaze." Moffett contemplates "her deep thirst for the unknown…and the arrival of Gertrude." This pairing of photographs were taken nearly 10 years before Alice would first meet her partner of more than 50 years, Gertrude Tate.

Alice took 2 portraits of these friends who are unknown to us in the mid 1880's. They gaze at the camera with sweet, cheeky looks questioning gender roles of the era. Alice took many portraits and self portraits in costumes which challenged social conventions. The pose of the two men is delightfully reflected in composition of the paired image, Captain Halls dogs which follows.

Victoria Munro, the current Executive Director of the Alice Austen House Museum, curator of this exhibition and member of the LGBTQ community contributes to this pairing of images with a reflection on Alice's creation of stages for her friends to express themselves on. Here Alice captures a beautifully peaceful moment with Captain Hall's Dogs taken in c.1895. Alice loved to photograph animals, especially dogs and stray cats. She treats these subjects with the same care as her friends and gives the animals deeply human qualities.

Sarah Kate Gillespie, Curator of American Art, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia discusses the nature of Alice's outdoor photography and her more intimate indoor scenes as pictured in the following photograph of a corner of Alice's bedroom.
In 1891 Alice has posed her friends in a make believe drunken party on the steps of a wagonette. This is a wonderful example of Alice and her female companions breaking the rules of Victorian etiquette for 'ladies'.

Here we have a glimpse into Alice's interior world. Her bedroom displays her Victorian aesthetic and we see her own photographs within this frame of beloved pets, family and the working waterfront of New York.
Alice left behind an incredible collection of photographs dedicated to her home. 'Clear Comfort' as Alice and her family called it is now the Alice Austen House Museum and houses two period rooms with faithful restoration and furnishings guided by Alice's work.
Alice moved to Clear Comfort as an infant after her father abandoned her mother. She subsequently never took her fathers name and grew up the doted upon only child in a house full of adults. As an adult she lived at Clear Comfort with her loving partner Gertrude Tate for 30 years until tragically they where forced to separate and leave in 1945 because of lack of income. Alice signed a note of poverty and was sent to live in Staten Island's farm colony, or poor house. Gertrude moved back in with family in Brooklyn who would not accept Alice because they deemed their relation the 'wrong' kind of love.

This photograph of Alice (far left) and her friends depict their 'Darned Club', a group that was only for women. The group is posed at the edge of the Austen lawn where there are views of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Hoboken.
Lesbian artist and editor of Dyke Magazine, Liza Cowan used this image for the second issue of Dyke Magazine and writes about the Darned Club and the paired image of mountains at Storm King as a reflection of the freedoms Alice had to travel and her dedication to bringing her 50lbs of photographic equipment with her as she explored her world.

Taken just one year before Alice would meet the love of her life, Gertrude Tate, in upstate New York. Alice photographs these majestic mountains which mirror the shape and fall of the Victorian Skirts worn by her female friends in the Darned Club portrait.

This pair of photographs highlights Alice's clever sense of humor. One making a play on a failed marriage proposal and the other with three friends in bed!
This is one of six photos that Alic staged in front of a tombstone in Watkins, New York in 1892. She carefully positioned herself and her friends Trude Eccleston and Mr. Hopper to make a play on the name "NOYES", covering part of the name so it showed as "NO or "YES".
Lillian Faderman, author of SURPASSING THE LOVE OF MEN, ODD GIRLS AND TWILIGHT LOVERS, and TO BELIEVE IN WOMEN writes: “No!"—Alice’s friend Trude Eccleston is posed turning away from a heterosexual proposition. The tombstone articulates her rejection.

Taken in August, 1890 when Alice would have been 24 years old. She set a shutter release cable to capture her friends Eliza M. Snively and Julia Martin in bed with her.
There seems to be a secret being shared between Alice and Eliza while their friend Julia sleeps..... Alice later described Eliza, who separated from her husband a year after this photo was taken, as “a devil of a girl…a corker!”

This 1893 photograph titled "Indian Kettles and Trude." Shows Alice's best friend Trude Eccleston reclining with a book. Her head is just tilted forward enough that we can see her face reflected in the small pool of water. Alice artfully uses reflection to create a feeling of intimacy and affection towards her models.
Laura Wexler, who loves photography and teaches its history at Yale, where she is Professor of American Studies, Film & Media Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies writes about this watery pair of images in terms of the freedoms Alice displays in relationships spent in the surrounds of nature, far from the bustling New York she often documented.

Alice shot several series of waterfalls in Falls end of lower Watkins Glen, New York. These a tribute to her love of rugged nature and technical skill as an early photographer to capture movement so beautifully with exposures of several minutes.
This image provides another view of intimacy, with this thin crevice revealing its hidden cascade.

One of Alice's most famous cross dressing images: Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed, sitting down. October 15, 1891.
Alice and her friends pose outside Alice's home, questioning gender roles and using the handle of an umbrella to create a hilariously suggestive pose.
Keith Glutting, art librarian, Chair of the Museums Council of New York City writes: Alice, age 25, in a hunter’s hat, cigarette in hand, pushes social boundaries with friends dressed as mustachioed men. Julia Martin, laughing in a boater’s hat, suggestively arranges an umbrella. Julia Bredt, hands in pockets, glares from a businessman’s top hat. Alice’s smile, unusual in her photographs, confirms that this gender commentary was good fun between close friends.

This interior with a fireplace is thought to be the interior of the Rip Van Winkle Boarding House, which was located just north of the town of Palenville, in New York's Catskill Mountains. The story of Rip Van Winkle and his legendary nap pictured above the fireplace is reminiscent of Alice's storytelling in posed photographs.
This Inn is storied to have had many artist guests and travelers used it as a stop-over on their way to their way to the Catskill Mountain House.

Alice defies Victoria conventions again in 'Trude & I masked, Short Skirts'. The photograph shows Alice and her friend Trude brazenly posing with sleeveless undergarments, short skirts, hair down and smoking cigarettes, all in the rear of St Johns Episcopal church where Trude's father was a rector.
This image was published 60 years later,
one year before Alice's death in the 1951 life Magazine article " The Newly Discovered Picture World of Alice Austen"

Mitchell Grubler, Executive Director, Alice Austen House Museum, 1990-1995 writes:
‘Presenting the legacy of this remarkable individual was so much more than my profession, it was my passion.’ he goes on to talk about Alice as an observer through the screen of trees, stating "Her landscape images often include small figures in the vastness of nature."
The trees here mirror the curtains of the rectory where Mitchell Grubler writes about the entertaining and provocative nature of the scene of Trude and Alice in the church

Sagamore Lake George through trees white birch pine row boat.
August 31, 1913.
Negative, Glass-plate
Collection of Staten Island Historic Society

Here Alice has her friend Miss Elliot pose in one of their favorite spots which was a gym for women only;
Taken in 1893, Daisy Elliot is captivating, confident and trouser wearing model for Alice.
Paul Mokely, curator of the Alice Austen House and Editor at Large for Time Magazine writes: "I’m continually impressed by the seeming sense of spontaneity found so in many of Alice Austen’s photographs. No matter what Austen fixed her lens upon she saw the potential for the camera to freeze action. She often drives that particular quality of her photographs to imbue them with narratives about people, herself and nature."

Wreck end of dock at Mike Lyman's Caribean dock.
Paul Moakely compares this image with Miss Elliot in pose: "In these two images we have two different worlds where Austen felt quiet comfortable making images. Inside the women’s athletic club, Austen’s close friend Daisy strikes a classical pose, but it in the guise of the “new woman”, wearing billowing bloomers, while her friends gaze comfortably into her camera. One can feel a complicit air about this group in how they present themselves."

Gertrude Tate 1899 at Twilight Rest in the Catskills; From an album Alice Austen Made for Gertrude from their first meeting.

Here we see the progression of the story that Alice was telling. Gertrude was recovering from illness and in this incredibly intimate and trusting photograph she removes her wig for Alice. We can see Gertrude supporting her arm to keep still for Alice's camera.
JEB (Joan. E Biren) a documentary film and photographic artist who chronicles the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people writes: 'Gertrude boldly reveals herself to Alice and Alice’s camera. By exposing her shorn skull, Gertrude demonstrated her vulnerability and trust. The intimacy between Alice and Gertrude grew into a loving lesbian relationship that lasted for 50 years. As a remembrance of their first summer, Alice made Gertrude a keepsake book that included these two photographs."

Credits: Story

Contributors include: Donald Moffett, Lillian Faderman, Laura Wexler, Richard Meyer, Liza Cowan, Paul Moakley, Keith Glutting, Victoria Munro, JEB, Mitchell Grubler and Sarah Gillespie.

Curated by Victoria Munro.

Made possible by New York Community Trust, The Kors le Pere Foundation and Donald Moffett.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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