Alice Austen

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Alice Austen
Alice Austen 1951.jpg
Austen in Richmondtown, Staten Island on October 9, 1951, for her photo exhibition
Elizabeth Alice Munn

(1866-03-17)March 17, 1866
Rosebank, New York City, New York, United States
DiedJune 9, 1952(1952-06-09) (aged 86)
Resting placeMoravian Cemetery
Years active1880s–1930s
Partner(s)Gertrude Amelia Tate (1899-1950~)[1]
Parent(s)Alice Cornell Austen (1836-?)
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.[2][3]


Austen's father abandoned the family before she was born, and she was baptized under the name Elizabeth Alice Munn on May 23, 1866, in St. John's Church on Staten Island. She never used the name Munn and would initial her negatives with "EAA" for Elizabeth Alice Austen. With no household income and no husband, Alice's mother moved back to her own parent's home, which was known as Clear Comfort. Alice was the only child in the household, which now consisted of: Alice's mother, Alice Cornell Austen (1836-?); Alice's maternal grandparents, John Haggerty Austen (c1810–1894) and Elizabeth Alice Townsend (c1810s–1887). Also in the house were her mother's siblings: Peter Austen, who was a chemistry professor at Rutgers University; and Mary Austen (1840-?) aka Minnie Austen, who was married to Oswald Müller (1840–?) who was the owner of a shipping company. Oswald was born in Denmark.

Clear Comfort[edit]

Austen in a June 1888 photograph by Oswald Müller

The house was built in the 17th century, but was expanded during the 19th century by Alice's grandparents: John Haggerty Austen; and Elizabeth Alice Townsend. Clear Comfort was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976, one month after the 110th anniversary of Alice's birth. It is also known as "Alice Austen House" and is located in the Rosebank neighborhood.[3][4]


Trude and I Masked by Austen
Alice Austen Watches her World by Austen c. 1910

Austen became interested in photography when her uncle, Oswald Müller, brought home a camera around 1876.[5] Alice's uncle Peter Townsend Austen was a chemistry professor at Rutgers who taught her photographic processing. Peter and Oswald converted a closet on the second floor into Alice's darkroom. The earliest extant photograph by her is dated 1884. Over the next 40 years she produced around 8,000 photographs.[6]

Austen's subject was daily life of the people of New York. She documented upper middle-class society on Staten Island and lower-class people living in New York's Lower East Side. Her images of immigrants showed "a hesitancy and curiosity experienced by both photographer and subject." [7]


By 1900 her uncle Oswald was the head of household and the family had two servants: Katherine Wertz (1857-?); and Constance Rasmusth (1876-?). They also had a cook, Mary McDonald (1873-?).[citation needed]

Gertrude Amelia Tate[edit]

In 1899 Austen met Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871–1962), a kindergarten teacher and dancing instructor of Brooklyn, New York. She became Austen's lifelong companion. Gertrude visited Alice regularly and they spent holidays together in Europe. She moved in with Alice at Clear Comfort in 1917, overriding her family's objection over her "wrong devotion" to Alice. They stayed together until, after the Stock Market Crash when they struggled to get by, Gertrude's family offered housing to Gertrude, and only her, in 1950. They wished to be buried together, but their families refused this wish.[8]


Austen lived off the interest from the money left by her grandfather but the principal was lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In 1920 Austen is listed in the Social Register of New York and was a member of the Colony Club of New York. By age 63, she had no income. She began to sell off her silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money to buy food and fuel. She then took out a mortgage on the house which was taken by the bank in 1945. She sold her remaining possessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey and called her friend Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society to take the photos. He stored them at the Third County Courthouse in Richmondtown. She then moved to an apartment, then a nursing home. On June 24, 1950, she was declared a pauper and was admitted to New York City Farm Colony, Staten Island's poorhouse.


In 1950 Picture Press started a project on the history of American women and contacted archives for unpublished images. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society had 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Austen glass plate negatives of the roughly 8,000 she took.[6] In October 1950, Constance Foulk Robert met with Brinley and McMillen to look at the negatives. Oliver Jensen came along on the next trip and he published several of the photos in his book Revolt of Women. He also wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and published six-pages of travel photos in Holiday magazine. The publications raised more than $4,000 for Austen and she was able to move out of the Farm Colony and into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951 Austen was the guest of honor at the first Alice Austen Day. She said: "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people."[9]

Death and burial[edit]

Austen continued to be supported by the Staten Island Historical Society and lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died on June 9, 1952. The Society arranged for her funeral and she was buried in the Austen family plot in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp, Staten Island.[2]

The Alice Austen Collection[edit]

The Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond Town claims it owns over 7,000 original items (glass plate negatives, film base negatives, and original prints) by Austen, but they do not retain the right to license images in their collection.[10] This collection is cataloged, digitized, and stored in an archival manner at Historic Richmond Town.[11] The collection is available for study by appointment and high-quality images are made available upon request.[12] The Alice Austen House Museum also has a collection of photographs, with about 300 on display in the resource room, which is open to the public.


  • 1866 Birth and baptism
  • 1917 Gertrude Tate moves in
  • 1929 Stock market crash
  • 1950 Declared a pauper then her rediscovery
  • 1951 Alice Austen day
  • 1952 Death
  • 1976 Clear Comfort becomes National Landmark


The Alice Austen School, PS 60, located on Merril Avenue in the Bulls Head neighborhood of Staten Island, is named in her honor.[13] Playwright Robin Rice's drama Alice in Black and White traces Austen's life from 1876 to 1951.[14] The play also follows Oliver Jensen's search for and discovery of Austen and her glass plate negatives. The play received its world premiere at the Kentucky Center followed by a New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters in 2016, the 150th anniversary of Austen's birth. (Both productions with Looking for Lilith Theatre Company). The play won the StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award.



  1. ^ "Her Life | Alice Austen House". Retrieved 2017-12-07.
  2. ^ a b "Miss Alice Austen, 86 Photographer". The New York Times. June 10, 1952. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  3. ^ a b Claire Wilson (March 12, 2006). "Rosebank, Staten Island: A Quiet Slice of New York Waterfront". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  4. ^ "Alice Austen House". National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
  5. ^ The queer encyclopedia of the visual arts. Summers, Claude J. San Francisco: Cleis Press. 2004. ISBN 1573441910. OCLC 54529572.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ a b "Alice Austen House Museum". Historic House Trust. Archived from the original on 2008-02-16. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  7. ^ Dejardin, Fiona. "Austin, Alice". Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  8. ^ Accessed 1 February 2014.
  9. ^ "Old Friends Honor Miss Alice Austen. Photographer For 50 years Has Her Day". The New York Times. October 8, 1951. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  10. ^ "IMLS Treatment of Collections grant award to the Staten Island Historical Society to rehouse vintage prints in the Alice Austen Collection". Awarded Grants Search. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  11. ^ "IMLS Museums for America grant award to the Staten Island Historical Society for digitization of the Alice Austen Collection". Awarded Grants Search. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Research and Library". Historic Richmond Town. Staten Island Historical Society, Historic Richmond Town. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2010-08-04.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ "BWW-Review-ALICE-IN-BLACK-AND-WHITE-at-59E59-Theaters-is-Important-Theatre-Wonderfully-Presented-20160809". Retrieved 2015-06-04.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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
  • H. Humphries and R. Benedict: ‘The Friends of Alice Austen: With a Portfolio of Historical Photographs’, Infinity (July 1967), pp. 4–31
  • 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)
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • Rist, Darrell Yates. "Alice Austen House: A Gay Haven on Staten Island is Reclaimed." The Advocate, no. 438 (21 January 1986): 38-39.
  • Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. New York: Abbeville, 2014. ISBN 9780789212245.
  • 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)
  • Buckwalter, Margaret: Alice Austen:  Commemorative Journal: Alice Austen Museum, 1986
  • Simpson, Jeffrey:  The Way Life Was. A Photographic Treasury from the American Past by Chansonetta Emmons, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Alice Austen, Jacon 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
  • Hammer, Barbara:  The Female Closet (A look at the art and lives of Alice Austen, Hannah Höch and Nicole Eisenman) Video, 1998
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Khoudari, Amy S.; Alice Austen House:  A National Historic Landmark, Museum & Garden Guide. Staten Island: Friends of Alice Austen House, c1993
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Zimmerman, Bonnie (editor):  Lesbian Histories and Cultures:  An Encyclopedia, Volume 1: New York/London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000.  ISBN 0815319207
  • 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
  • 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
  • Lenman, Robin: The Oxford Companion to Photography: Oxford University Press, 2005.  ISBN 9780198662716

External links[edit]