Alice Austen: Early American Photographer

The Alice Austen House is the only museum devoted to a woman photographer in the United States, and one of very few preserved artist’s homes and studios in New York City.

By Alice Austen House

E.A. Austen (1888-05) by Oswald MullerAlice Austen House

Alice Austen, born in 1866, was a trailblazer – a rebel who broke away from the constraints of her Victorian environment and forged an independent life that pushed boundaries of acceptable female behavior and social rules. 

The Darned Club (1891-10-29) by Alice Austen. Collection of Staten Island Historic SocietyAlice Austen House

Her family’s home, Clear Comfort, now the museum, shaped Alice Austen’s experiences, served as her first studio space and darkroom, and opened up to her a world of subjects beyond her comfortable, upper-middle class suburban existence. 

Clear Comfort: Alice Austen House and Grounds

Alice Austen was raised in an unconventional Victorian home where she was encouraged to explore her own interests rather than adhere to traditional Victorian women’s roles of marriage and motherhood.

Purchased by Alice’s Grandfather in 1844, the home’s prominent waterfront site on the north shore of Staten Island influenced Alice Austen’s work, allowing her to witness many historical events from her front lawn. 

Alice Austen on Front Porch, ca. 1900Alice Austen House

Alice Austen on Front Porch, ca. 1900

Born Elizabeth Alice Munn in 1866, Alice Austen’s paternal surname was dropped after her father abandoned the family shortly after her birth. Alice’s mother moved into her parents home, known as Clear Comfort, when Alice was a young child. 

Alice Austen would spend seventy-eight years of her life here.

The Narrows from Clear Comfort’s Lawn, ca. 1900Alice Austen House

The Narrows from Clear Comfort’s Lawn, ca. 1900

Alice Austen made significant contributions to New York City and United States history through her life and photographs. 

From Clear Comfort’s lawn, Austen witnessed many inspirational historic events, such as the construction of the Statue of Liberty, the last voyage of the Lusitania, and the massive waves of immigrants arriving in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Formal Parlor

The Alice Austen House holds a collection of original Alice Austen photographs and artifacts, including: glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and photo albums compiled by Alice Austen. 

The 1890s formal parlor and dining room have been recreated with both original objects belonging to the Austen family and period-pieces carefully selected based on the detailed photos taken by Alice Austen of each room in the house.

[Pickard's Penny Portrait of Alice and Gertrude] (1905)Alice Austen House

Pickard’s Penny Portrait of Alice and Gertrude

Alice met her life partner, Gertrude Tate, in 1899. The couple formed a loving and devoted relationship, built a life together, and supported one another for more than fifty years, living together at Clear Comfort for thirty years. 

[Alice & Gertrude in their later Years] (1944-09) by Richard O. Cannon, M.D.Alice Austen House

The most apt description of Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate’s relationship is “Boston Marriage.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the term was used to describe two single women living together, independent of men. 

“Boston marriages” allowed independent, intellectually-driven women to work outside the home and have amorous and/or domestic relationships with other women.

Century Camera from ca. 1895Alice Austen House

Century Camera from ca. 1895

Alice Austen was handed her first camera at age eleven. She learned the technical aspects of glass plate photography and set up a darkroom at Clear Comfort in a hallway closet. She was incredibly prolific, making about 8,000 photographs during her lifetime. 

With her compact field camera, like this one, Austen frequently documented her own social circle. In some of these photographs, Austen mocked conventions of Victorian life by photographing herself and her friends cross-dressing and posing with each other in outlandish scenarios.

Alice Austen’s Bedroom

The Austen family added this room onto the home in the 1840s, and later added an adjacent sleeping porch in 1870. Alice Austen and her mother shared this bedroom from Alice’s infancy until 1900 when her mother died. 

Today, this room acts as a modern gallery space where the museum shows the work of Alice Austen and contemporary photographers. 

The photographs in this gallery were selected by photographer Christine Osinski, who presents her photographs of Staten Island in the 1980's alongside Alice Austen’s from 100 years before. 

Alice Austen’s BedroomAlice Austen House

Alice Austen’s bedroom, ca. 1895

Austen photographed each room in the home from multiple angles over many years. This particular scene shows Austen’s bedroom full of her personal belongings and Victorian bric-a-brac. The first indoor bathroom was added onto this room a few years after this photo was taken. 

Alice Austen with Bicycle, 1897Alice Austen House

Alice Austen with Bicycle, 1897

Alice Austen went to great lengths to capture her subjects. She transported up to fifty pounds of photography equipment, frequently travelling into Manhattan on her own to document the street life and working immigrants of New York City. 

Here, Alice Austen prepares to mount her bicycle. As an early advocate for women cyclists, she promoted bicycling as a tool to give women greater freedom through mobility. 

Violet Ward and Friend (circa. 1892) by Alice AustenAlice Austen House

Alice Austen’s photograph of Violet Ward and friend, 1892

In this photograph, Alice Austen takes a photograph of Violet Ward and friend lounging outside of Clear Comfort in an intimate pose. These women were a part of Alice Austen’s female-centered world. In 1896, Violet Ward wrote and published a book entitled Bicycling for Ladies. 

Alice Austen’s photographs were used as the reference for the book’s illustrations.   

Alice Austen’s Darkroom

One of four closets radiating from a central hallway, the darkroom was a space Austen used frequently. The room measures seven by eight feet - the Austens added shelves, drawers, and a counter for Austen to work more proficiently. 

Austen processed many of her photographs in this darkroom before her home had running water installed. This required Austen to wash her glass plates at the well in her backyard. The work was very physical, technical and time consuming.

Austen’s Glass Plate Envelope

When photographing, Alice Austen frequently detailed many of the conditions surrounding her photographs, such as the date, time, weather, and subject. 

Austen’s Glass Plate EnvelopeAlice Austen House

On this envelope, Austen notes that she took a photograph of one of the boats at the Quarantine on Monday, August 3rd, 1891 at 5:15pm at a focal length of 60 ft. She notes the weather as being a “fine day”. 

Dr. Doty and the Quarantine

In the early 1890s, 500,000 immigrants per year were sailing past Clear Comfort into New York Harbor to Ellis Island. If there were signs of infectious disease on the boat, the passengers and goods abroad and the vessel had to be inspected and sanitized.

Dr. Doty and the QuarantineAlice Austen House

In the late 1890s, Austen was asked by a Public Health Service doctor, Dr. Alvah H. Doty, to document the quarantine stations located on Hoffman and Swinburne Islands close to the Austen family home. 

Austen continued to travel to the islands for over a decade to document advances in technology and conditions at the quarantine stations. She processed these photographs in this darkroom.

Quarantine Island (circa. 1896) by Alice AustenAlice Austen House

Immigrants at Hoffman Island Quarantine, 1901

Despite risks to her own health, Austen would travel to Hoffman and Swinburne Island quarantine stations, where immigrants possibly infected with diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera were held. 

Immigrants at Hoffman Island Quarantine, 1901Alice Austen House

She produced a powerful and unique series of photos of men hosing down floors, mattresses entering incinerators, sick men and women lined up on cots, officers’ quarters and laboratories, and anxious immigrants standing behind a fence awaiting clearance for arrival into the U.S..

Some of these photographs were presented in a public exhibition of the Public Health Service at the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. Austen would have made prints for display from her glass plate negatives through a process called “contact printing.”

Austen in Manhattan: Trinity Church

Trinity Church is a historic church located near the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, in lower Manhattan. The structure was built in the 1840s. Trinity Church is considered one of the first examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in the United States. 

Its 281-foot high steeple made it the tallest building in Manhattan until 1890.

Shoelace Peddler “Street Type”

Through Austen’s photographs, we learn about the street activities in the turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City. It was uncommon for women to travel onto the streets independently during this time.

Shoelace Peddler “Street Type”Alice Austen House

During her trips into the city, Austen photographed working class and immigrant street laborers. She called this series of photos “The Street Types of New York.” The work was published in book form in 1896. 

In this photograph, Austen captures a man selling shoelaces outside of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. 

Austen in Manhattan: 48th and Broadway

Times Square, originally known as Long Acre Square, was named after London’s carriage district. At the time, the area was the central site in New York for The American Horse Exchange. 

Alice Austen would have witnessed this area change significantly during the late 1800’s and early 20th century. About ten years after Austen photographed several of her Street Types images here, the area was renamed New York Times Square. 

During this time, advances in technology made the streets safer through the introduction of electric street lighting. After street lighting, quickly came the first electrical advertisement for a local theatre in the area.

Organ Grinder and Wife “Street Type”

An organ grinder is a person who plays a street organ and asks their audience for money to hear the music. These street organs were designed to be portable. 

Organ Grinder and Wife “Street Type”Alice Austen House

In New York City, these instruments were banned in 1935 by mayor Fiorello La Guardia citing traffic congestion due to the begging nature of this profession.

This ban led to the destruction of hundreds of organs. In this image, taken around 1894, Alice Austen captures an organ grinder and his wife entertaining on the busy intersection of 48th and Broadway. 

Austen in Manhattan: Bethesda Fountain

In addition to her “Street Types” series, Alice Austen would frequently travel the streets of Manhattan, and beyond, to document people and landmarks. Austen traveled to Central Park to take a photograph of the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, completed between 1859-1864.

The “The Angel of the Waters” sculpture is one of the largest fountains in New York City, and the only one designed by a women, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), who designed the sculpture in the 1860s while living in Rome with her partner Charlotte Cushman, the leading actress of the American and British stages. 

Image missing

Bethesda Fountain, ca. 1900

Around 1900, Alice Austen took this image of Stebbins’ Bethesda Fountain. Like Stebbins, Austen was working in a craft where most of the contemporary practitioners were men. 

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