Elizabeth Alice Austen was born in Staten Island, New York on March 17, 1866. After her father left, mother and daughter moved into the maternal homestead affectionately known as Clear Comfort. It was there the ten-year-old Miss Austen was introduced to photography by her uncle Oswald Muller, who allowed his niece to use his camera after offering her some brief instruction. Another uncle, chemist Peter Austen, taught her how to print and develop her own photographs. While still a teenager, she mastered the subtle nuances of contact printing and dry-plate negatives and handled cumbersome cameras like an expert. Her camera became an extension of herself to the point that a friend observed, "Alice's camera was as much a part of her as her clothes or her purse." She took along several heavy cameras while she toured Europe, but her favorite subjects were the family and friends that comprised the middle-class social circle of Clear Comfort. However, she also photographed the homeless adults and children that walked the streets of New York's impoverished Lower East Side. For her short excursions, she used her 4x5 Scovill Waterbury camera. The heavier custom-made Willoughby or 8x10 Folner & Schwing cameras were relied upon when Miss Austen had access to the necessary transportation.
Although most of Miss Austen's many photographs were taken during the height of the pictorialist and Photo-Secessionist periods, they are not reflective of these approaches as were the images of her contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Kasebier. She concentrates on nearby rather than global surroundings and her photographs lack the sentimentality that characterized the work of other female photographers. She did not seek to romanticize the domestic sphere; she presents it with a refreshing realism that has great historical significance because they capture the style and substance of a bygone social era.
Because Miss Austen could rely upon her affluent family's financial resources, she was able to pursue amateur photography without the need to generate income through the sale of her photographs. However, this would change dramatically when the stock market crashed in 1929. The family home was mortgaged and its furnishings were auctioned. Miss Austen and her female companion were still left virtually penniless after liquidating their remaining assets. Affllicted with crippling arthritis that prevented her from pursuing photography professionally, a wheelchair-bound Alice Austen was reduced to living in a poorhouse known as the City Farm Colony. Thankfully, the Staten Island Historical Society and its researcher Oliver Jensen came to her rescue, selling several of her photographs to Life and Holiday magazines in 1951. The enthusiastic response to the images of another time generated much-needed income and public appreciation for her work. Eighty-five-year-old Alice Austen died on June 9, 1952, leaving behind a massive collection of nearly 8,000 photographs. Of her work, she declared with pride, "How nice it is that what was once so much pleasure to me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people."
2011 The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 172-173.
2000 Lesbian Histories and Cultures (New York: Garland Publishing Inc./Taylor & Francis Group), pp.
1951 Life Magazine (New York: Time, Incorporated), pp. 137-144.
1988 The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn-of-the-Century America (Albany, NY: State University of New York), pp. 116-117.
Alice Austen Official Website
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