Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) was a self-taught photographer born on Staten Island. She used her mother’s surname, Austen, because her father had left her mother before Alice was born.
Alice started her interest in photography when her uncle gave her a camera when she was 10 years old. After she began in her hobby, her camera equipment rarely left her side (though at times it weighed over 50lbs/~23kg altogether!)
Over her lifetime, Alice took thousands of photographs of all kinds of subjects. Her photographs are especially valuable as a window into daily life of the time.
Alice held onto her glass plate negatives, just thinking of her photography as a hobby. However, during the stock market crash of 1929, Alice and her family lost all their income, and she eventually had to sell off her home and all her possessions in order to survive.
In 1950, Alice’s photographs were rediscovered by chance when Picture Press was looking for images for a new project on the history of American women. Oliver Jensen of Picture Press published several of Alice’s photos in the book Revolt of Women, wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and published six pages of Alice’s travel photos in Holiday magazine, raising over $4,000. With her portion of the money, Alice was able to move out of the poorhouse where she had been living.
Currently, the Alice Austen House Museum on Staten Island in New York City has a large collection of photographs. About 300 are on display in the resource room, which is open to the public.
Interview with Alice
Thanks to Sundog Theatre, who performed a musical about Alice Austen’s life, I was able to do an “interview” with the amazing photographer herself (courtesy Patti Boustany of Sundog Theater)!
AmazingWomenInHistory.com [AWH]: Your passion for photography is very obvious, since you’ve taken literally thousands of photos in your lifetime! Though it was a fun hobby for you, did you have any idea how important your photography would be later on?
Alice Austen [AA]: I never gave it a thought. I pursued photography – as I pursued my entire life – because it interested me. I never lived or worked for others and certainly not for posterity. Why ever would one live for recognition that arrives when one is dead? That is rather like waiting at a station that no longer receives trains, is it not?
AWH: You traveled extensively in your life and took photos in many locations. What were some of your favorite places? Is there anywhere you wished you could have traveled to but never got the chance?
AA: Gertrude Tate and I traveled across all of Europe, in the remote hills of Spain, which was a grand adventure – few people went there in those days, and you should know I met His Holiness the Pope while touring Rome… What a nice man he was! Not a Quaker like us, but he is entitled to his beliefs. It was a great tragedy that few of my European photographs survive – lost with my home. My Uncle Oswald Muller was a sea captain, and he and my Aunt Minn traveled to China, Japan, the Maylay peninsula, Siam – what I believe you people now call Thailand. I would have loved to have seen Asia with Oswald and Minn – they filled our home with vases, ceramics, books and all manner of treasures from the East – but most of all they filled our lives with story, delight and interest.
AWH: What are some of your other hobbies and how did they influence your photography?
AA: I play the banjo, but that is just an amusement – like participating at the Staten Island Garden Club. I sail, most every day – the Yacht Club is next door to– I ride horses, I play golf and lawn tennis – I’ve played and won tennis tournaments at some of America’s best clubs – I ride bicycles, I climb mountains, I enjoy motor racing – did you know that I was one of the first women who owned an automobile – and was my own mechanic – though making photographs occupies most of my time. I recorded all of these subjects in my photography. You’ll see in my photos that I took some of the first photos of tennis players in America, and there’s a delightful one of me playing the banjo. I recorded motor racing in Upstate New York, and have some rather lovely landscape photos of the Catskills where I enjoyed hiking and boating – images of our own Yankee pastorale. I dare say I was an American Seurat.
Image of Alice Austen courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.