OCTOBER 9: Alice Austen (1866-1952)

Ever since 1951, October 9th has been recognized as Alice Austen Day in the state of New York in dedication
to one of the earliest and most prolific woman photographers in American
history. Often shrouded over in history textbooks is the fact not only was Alice
Austen a pioneering feminist, but she was also a lesbian

A self-portrait of Alice Austen taken on September 19, 1892. She would later call this “the very best picture that was ever taken of me” (x).

Elizabeth Alice Munn was born on
May 23, 1866 inside St. John’s Church on Staten Island. Her father abandoned
the family before Alice was born, which affected her to the point of refusing
to go by her baptismal surname of Munn and instead choosing to be called
Austen, the name of her maternal family.  Alice would grow up at the Austen family home
called “Clear Comfort” in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island, a quaint
and loved child as the only young person in a house full of six adults. Her
first camera was given to her by her uncle, Oswald Müller, who was a sea
captain and often brought the family back gifts from his expeditions. Although
she was only 10-years-old, Alice fell in love with the camera and developed a
hobby of taking photos of her family members and her pets in the family garden. Her
family recognized her talent right away and her Uncle Peter, a chemistry
professor, taught her how to develop her photos.

Alice Austen, The Darned Club, 1891. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society (x).  

Supported by her wealthy family,
Alice spent much of her life traveling with her camera equipment and
documenting her experiences. She spent the summers traveling around Europe and
the rest of the seasons traveling around the New York area. It was on one such
excursion trip that Alice met the love of her life, Gertrude Tate. They met in
1899 at a Catskill hotel known as “Twilight Rest.” Gertrude was 28 to
Alice’s 33 and the photos of that summer are riddled with portraits of
Gertrude. Despite the Tate family’s disapproval of their daughter’s “wrong
devotion” to another woman, the two moved into Clear Comfort together in 1917. Alice
and Gertrude lived out their days at Clear Comfort comfortably as society
women, frequently attending parties and even starting a gardening club.

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, Pickards Penny Photo Studio, Stapleton Staten Island, c. 1905. Courtesy of Alice Austen House (x). 

Unfortunately, after the 1929
stock market crash, they fell into hard times financially and were forced to
move out of Clear Comfort and into a small apartment. Alice would live out her last years in poverty, only seeing her photography fully recognized in the last years of her life. In 1950, many of her early
photographs were published in an anthology called The Revolt of Women and an article about her life and
work was published in Life Magazine the same year. On
October 9, 1951 Alice was honored by the state of New York with the declaration
of the date as being Alice Austen Day. While at the opening ceremony of Alice
Austen Day, which was also an exhibition of her work, Alice is quoted as
saying, "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out
now to be a pleasure for other people.” She would pass away a year later
on June 9, 1952. Although she and Gertrude had requested to be buried together,
their families refused.

-LC