Alice Austen

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Alice Austen
Austen in Richmondtown, Staten Island on October 9, 1951, for her photo exhibition
Elizabeth Alice Munn

(1866-03-17)March 17, 1866
DiedJune 9, 1952(1952-06-09) (aged 86)
Resting placeMoravian Cemetery
Years active1880s–1930s
PartnerGertrude Amelia Tate (1899–1950~)[1]
ParentAlice Cornell Austen (1836–1900)
Alice Austen House or Clear Comfort in 2002

Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) was an American photographer working in Staten Island. She is best known for her street photography and her intimate depictions of women's lives and relationships in the Victorian era.


Alice Austen was born Elizabeth Alice Austen on March 17, 1866 in Rosebank, New York to Alice Cornell Austen and Edward Stopford Munn. Her great great grandfather, Peter Townsend, was the owner of Sterling Iron Works famous for forging the Hudson River Chain used to thwart British ships during the American Revolutionary War.[2] Austen's father abandoned the family around 1869, prompting Austen and her mother to move to her family's Victorian Gothic farmhouse, nicknamed Clear Comfort, where they lived with Austen's maternal grandparents, her uncle, and her aunt and her husband.[3][4][5] She was encouraged at a young age to pursue various activities and hobbies, and was first introduced to photography at the age of ten by her uncle Oswald.[6][7]


Austen was a self-taught photographer, and primarily used photographic plates and a camera manufactured by the Scovill Company. She also meticulously recorded information about her photographs, including the glass plate brand, aperture, and exposure time.[8] Austen used a darkroom, likely designed by her uncle, an amateur photographer and chemistry professor at Rutgers University, and produced over 7,000 photographs up through the 1930s, most notably depicting New York's immigrant populations, the inner lives and activities of Victorian women, and her travels to Europe.[9][8][6]

Austen is notable as one of the first female photographers to work outside of a studio and was known to transport up to fifty pounds of camera equipment on her bicycle.[8][10] Austen is considered an amateur photographer as she was independently wealthy and typically did not sell her work to support herself.[9][6] She copyrighted much of her work, though little of it was ever marketed. In 1895, she began work on a portfolio project titled "Street Types of New York" made up of street photography portraits of various tradespeople in working-class neighborhoods in Manhattan. From the mid-1890s to 1912, Austen worked for Alvah H. Doty photographing the equipment and conditions at the Quarantine Station of Ellis Island.[6] Many of her photographs from this time were featured in an exhibit at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and published in Harpers Weekly Magazine and Medical Record.[11]

Her work was also published in Violet Ward's Bicycling for Ladies in 1896, although she was not credited. The majority of her work was intended for private viewing, as they depicted intimate relationships between Victorian women and scenes from a non-traditional lifestyle, which including smoking, cross-dressing, and biking.[7][9] Austen's work is today considered significant for providing a rare look into the private lives of queer Victorian women.[6]

Relationships and later life[edit]

Alice Austen's gravestone in Moravian Cemetery.

In 1897, Austen met Gertrude Tate, a teacher from Brooklyn, while on vacation in the Catskills.[12][9] They soon began a romantic relationship, with Tate moving into Clear Comfort in 1917, with the permission of Austen's aunt. Austen continued to take photographs of her home and friends, and of her travels in Europe with Tate, though many of her film negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were never printed.[12] Austen was an active member of Staten Island society, founding the Staten Island Garden Club and participating in the Staten Island Bicycle Club.[10] She is said to have been the first woman in Staten Island to own a car.[5][13][14] In 1929, Austen lost her savings in the Wall Street Crash, and she and Tate financially struggled throughout the Great Depression. The two women worked to support themselves, with Tate offering dance classes and the brief establishment of a tea room in their home.[14][12] In 1944, Austen was forced to sell Clear Comfort, and the pair was evicted from the house in 1945.[4][12] Austen and Tate moved into an apartment in St. George, Staten Island, where they lived until 1949, when it became too difficult to care for Austen's arthritis.[12][14][10] She was subsequently declared a pauper by the state and transferred to the New York City Farm Colony in Castleton.[14] Tate moved to Jackson Heights, Queens to live with her family, who disapproved of her relationship with Austen.[9][10][15]

In 1951, historian and former LIFE magazine Oliver Jensen discovered her photographs, which had been transferred to the Staten Island Historical Society.[16][6] Jensen helped publish the photos in LIFE and other magazines, helping raise enough money to transfer Austen to a private nursing home.[16][6] The Staten Island Historical Society also sponsored "Alice Austen Day" featuring the first public exhibit of Austen's work.[16] Austen passed away on June 9, 1952 following a stroke.[6][13] She was buried in her family's plot in Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, and despite their wish to be buried together, Tate was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn after her death in 1962.[15][10]

Museum and legacy[edit]

Hylan Boulevard, on which the Alice Austen House is located, has the alternative name, Alice Austen Way.

In the 1960s, when the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge made waterfront property in Staten Island more valuable, a group of concerned citizens formed The Friends of Alice Austen to save her former home from demolition.[4][16] Some preservationists involved in this effort included photographer Berenice Abbott and architect Phillip Johnson.[15] The campaign was ultimately successful, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission designating the house as a New York City Landmark, prompting the city to purchase the property in 1975.[16] With over $1 million from the city's capital budget, the Alice Austen House was renovated and opened as a museum in 1985.[16][4] The house was also designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1993.[4] The Friends of Alice Austen House was formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1979, and continues to operate the house and surrounding garden in coordination with the Department of Parks and Recreation.[4]

In 1994, the Alice Austen House was the site of a demonstration by the activist group the Lesbian Avengers, who advocated for the acknowledgement of Austen and Tate's same-sex relationship.[16][15]

In 2017, the Alice Austen House was designated as a National LGBT Historic Site, and also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to incorporate Austen and Tate's relationship into the museum.[17][15]

The Alice Austen School, PS 60, located in the Bulls Head neighborhood of Staten Island, is named in her honor, as well as a Staten Island Ferry boat.[18][19] Playwright Robin Rice's drama Alice in Black and White traces Austen's life from 1876 to 1951.[20] The play also follows Oliver Jensen's search for and discovery of Austen and her glass plate negatives. The play first premiered at the Kentucky Center in 2013, and then at 59E59 Theaters in New York City in 2016, the 150th anniversary of Austen's birth.[21][22] The play also received the StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska.[21]

Her life and work inspired the 2022 young adult fiction book Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex Gino, in which two non-binary middle schoolers do a US History report about Austen.[23] In 2022, a podcast created by scholar Pamela Bannos in collaboration with the Alice Austen House Museum, titled My Dear Alice, was released, featuring excerpts from Austen's correspondence with various friends and family.[24]



  1. ^ "Her Life | Alice Austen House". Retrieved 2017-12-07.
  2. ^ Life Magazine, September 24, 1951, page 137
  3. ^ Summer, Claude. Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, 2012, page 38
  4. ^ a b c d e f "History of the Home & Museum". Alice Austen House. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  5. ^ a b "Museum Information". Alice Austen House. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "About Alice Austen". Alice Austen House. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  7. ^ a b Gonzalez, David (2013-07-18). "Alice Austen's Type of Town". Lens Blog. Retrieved 2022-08-21.
  8. ^ a b c Yochelson, Bonnie (2021). "Miss Alice Austen and Staten Island's Gilded Age: The Art and Craft of Photography". The Gotham Center for New York City History. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c d e Jow, Tiffany (July 20, 2017). "Over 100 Years Later, Photographer Alice Austen is Finally Being Recognized as an LGBTQ Icon". Artsy. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  10. ^ a b c d e Rebman, Scarlett (June 27, 2023). "Devoted: Alice Austen and Stonewall 50". Humanities New York. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  11. ^ Yochelson, Bonnie (2021). "Miss Alice Austen and Staten Island's Gilded Age: Amateur or Professional?". The Gotham Center of New York City History. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  12. ^ a b c d e Yochelson, Bonnie (2021). "Miss Alice Austen and Staten Island's Gilded Age: Life With Gertrude Tate". The Gotham Center for New York City History. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  13. ^ a b Popova, Maria (June 26, 2021). "The Other Great Gertrude-and-Alice Love Story: The Life and Legacy of Pioneering Photographer and Bicyclist Alice Austen". The Marginalian. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  14. ^ a b c d Besonen, Julie (June 27, 2014). "She Did It Her Way". The New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  15. ^ a b c d e Dolkart, Andrew (2017). "Alice Austen & Gertrude Tate Residence". NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Yochelson, Bonnie (2021). "Miss Alice Austen and Staten Island's Gilded Age: The Public Meets Alice Austen". The Gotham Center for New York City History. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  17. ^ Laird, Cynthia (October 27, 2021). "LGBTQ History Month: Staten Island museum throws open Austen's closet door". Bay Area Reporter. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  18. ^ "PS 60 (31R060) Alice Austen - Homepage". Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2010-08-04.
  19. ^ "Staten Island Ferry Facts". NYC Department of Transportation. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  20. ^ "BWW-Review-ALICE-IN-BLACK-AND-WHITE-at-59E59-Theaters-is-Important-Theatre-Wonderfully-Presented-20160809". Retrieved 2015-06-04.
  21. ^ a b Mattingly, Jane (February 27, 2013). "Theater: Alice in black and white and on stage". Leo Weekly. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  22. ^ Vincentelli, Elisabeth (August 7, 2016). "Review: In 'Alice in Black and White,' a Pioneering Photojournalist". The New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  23. ^ "Alice Austen Lived Here". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved September 23, 2023.
  24. ^ Chernick, Karen (June 8, 2022). "New podcast reveals lives of queer 19th-century women through letters of photographer Alice Austen". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved September 23, 2023.

Further reading[edit]

  • Austen, Alice: Street Types of New York. New York: The Albertype Company, 1896; facsimile reprint, Staten Island, N.Y; Friends of Alice Austen House, 1994
  • New York Times, October 6, 1951, page 12; "Alice Austen Day"
  • ‘The Newly Discovered Picture World of Alice Austen: Great Woman Photographer Steps Out of the Past’, Life (24 Sept 1951), pp. 137–44
  • Gerhard Bissell, Austen, Alice, in: Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (Artists of the World), Suppl. I, Saur, Munich 2005, p. 541 (in German).
  • Buckwalter, Margaret: Alice Austen: Commemorative Journal: Alice Austen Museum, 1986
  • Grover, C. Jane: The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn-of-the-Century America: State University of New York Press, 1988. ISBN 0-88706-533-3
  • Hammer, Barbara: The Female Closet (A look at the art and lives of Alice Austen, Hannah Höch and Nicole Eisenman) Video, 1998
  • Humphreys, Hugh Campbell: Gateway to America: The Alice Austen House and Esplanade. New York: Friends of The Alice Austen House, 1968 (A proposal to restore and preserve the Alice Austen house and former New York Yacht Club on Staten Island, and to create a park and a museum)
  • H. Humphries and R. Benedict: ‘The Friends of Alice Austen: With a Portfolio of Historical Photographs’, Infinity (July 1967), pp. 4–31
  • Jensen, Oliver: The Revolt of American Women; a Pictorial History of the Century of Change from Bloomers to Bikinis-from Feminism to Freud: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. ISBN 0156766051
  • Kaplan, Daile: Fine Day: The Exhibition Featuring Photographs By Alice Austen Frank Eugene Gertrude Kasebier and Others: Alice Austen House & Staten Island Historical Society, 1988 (exhibition catalog)
  • Khoudari, Amy S.; Alice Austen House: A National Historic Landmark, Museum & Garden Guide. Staten Island: Friends of Alice Austen House, c1993
  • S. Khoudari: Looking the Shadows: The Life and Photography of Alice Austen (diss., New York, Sarah Lawrence College, 1993)
  • M. Kreisel: American Women Photographers: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography (Westport and London, 1999)
  • Lenman, Robin: The Oxford Companion to Photography: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780198662716
  • Lynch, Annette and Katalin Medvedev (editors): Fashion, Agency, and Empowerment: Performing Agency, Following Script: London/New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. ISBN 978-1-350-05826-2
  • Novotny, Ann. Alice's World: The Life and Photography of an American Original: Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Old Greenwich, Conn.: Chatham Press, 1976.
  • Novotny, Ann. "Alice Austen's World." In Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics 1, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 27–33.
  • Rist, Darrell Yates. "Alice Austen House: A Gay Haven on Staten Island is Reclaimed." The Advocate, no. 438 (21 January 1986): 38–39.
  • J. L. Roscio: Unpacking a Victorian Woman: Alice Austen and Photography of the Cult of Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America (diss., Buffalo, NY, State U., 2005)
  • Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. New York: Abbeville, 2014. ISBN 9780789212245.
  • Simpson, Jeffrey: The Way Life Was. A Photographic Treasury from the American Past by Chansonetta Emmons, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Alice Austen, Jacob Riis, The Byrons, Lewis Hine, Henry Hamilton Bennett, Solomon Butcher, L.W. Halbe, Joseph Pennell, E.J. Bellocq, Erwin Smith, Adam Vroman, Edward Curtis, Arnold Genthe and Darius Kinsey: New York/Washington Chanticleer Press/Praeger, 1975
  • Wexler, Laura: Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8078-4883-2
  • Woods, Mary N.: Beyond the Architect's Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8122-4108-2
  • Zimmerman, Bonnie (editor): Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1: New York/London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000. ISBN 0815319207

External links[edit]