Alice Austen pioneered photojournalism decades before the term was coined. Lugging a camera that was anything but portable, she was among the first female photographers to work outside of a studio. Polite women of her day did not travel through cities unescorted. Nor did they climb fences and trees in search of the best angles. Ignoring social pressures, Austen explored New York City and Staten Island. Through approximately 8,000 photographs she documented rapidly changing times as history unfolded before her.
She Taught Herself To Master A Complex Camera
Born Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 –1952), her father abandoned the family when she was a toddler. She and her mother moved into the family home called “Clear Comfort” located on the shore of the New York Narrows Harbor where they lived a life of privilege.
Austen was about ten years old when her uncle Oswald brought her first camera from Germany in 1876. According to Alice Austen House Museum she:
“…taught herself how to operate the complex camera mechanism, judge exposure, develop the heavy glass plates, and make prints. Alice also took copious notes about the picture-making process.” (Austen House)
She stored groups of negatives in envelopes, writing meticulous notes on each. Her scientific methodology included subject, time and date of the photograph with precise notes on lighting conditions. She carefully noted her exposure time, aperture and focal distance as well as the brand of the plate she used.
Following this rigid methodology, Alice Austen perfected her craft by the time she was 18. Still, she continued refining her work the rest of her life.
Her camera was a wooden box with a lens inn front and a holder in back for a glass plate negative. The camera rested on a tripod and was covered with a focusing cloth that she placed over her head. This set up was similar to the one Frances Benjamin Johnston used to photograph her series documenting Gilded Age Gardens during the same years that Austen worked.
The Austen family converted a small room on the second floor of Clear Comfort into a darkroom where Alice Austen developed her negatives. Instead of using chemicals she secured glass negatives and sheets of light-sensitive paper in contact frames. She placed these in direct sunlight to produce her prints.
The home is now a robust museum with changing exhibits and educational programs.
She Broke The Rules From The Beginning
Austen lived on the tightrope between two eras. Alice Austen House writes:
“Austen was a rebel who broke away from the constraints of her Victorian environment and forged an independent life that broke boundaries of acceptable female behavior and social rules.”
It was a time when some still criticized women for riding bicycles and warned them about the dangers of getting “bicycle face.” Even so, Austen:
“…often transported up to 50 pounds of photographic equipment on her bicycle to capture her world.”
She became a master tennis player when women were just breaking into the game. She was a landscape designer when it was still considered a man’s occupation. And she was the first woman on Staten Island to own a car.
Alice Austen never married in the traditional sense. But she spent 50 years in a committed and loving relationship with Gertrude Tate. Together, they lived a full life surrounded by a broadly diverse group of friends, some of whom also embraced non-traditional lifestyles.
Like so many trailblazers of the 1800s, she chose her own path.
She Was Intrigued By Immigrants In New York
Before photojournalism was born Alice Austen caught moments of life in action—without posing or staging. And without words, she captured history in the making.
Nearly nine million people emigrated from Europe to America between 1880 and 1900. Fascinated by the robust life the newcomers brought to the streets of New York City, Alice Austen spent tireless hours documenting them.
Her portfolio “Street Types of New York,” was published in 1896. Many of the photographs are available in digital format at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.
Austen also completed a paid assignment documenting the people and conditions of immigrant quarantine stations in New York during the 1890’s. Many of Alice Austen’s remaining photographs are from this work.
“During this time, half a million immigrants a year were sailing into New York, as the greatest mass immigration in human history got under way. The immigrants were admitted through the newly-built (1892) federal station on Ellis Island, but before they were allowed to enter the harbor, all ships had to pause for inspection at the Quarantine Station just south of the Austen house.” (Austen House)
Alice Austen photographs of Hoffman and Swinburne islands for more than ten years. Experts on her work often cite these photographs as among her best work in photojournalism. Many pieces from this period were exhibited at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
She Also Documented Staten Island’s Upper Class Lifestyle
By documenting her own life in volumes of photographs, Alice Austen brought to life the changing times. Her own home served as the backdrop where she recorded family, friends and neighbors.
Her photographs show friends often from an elite society socializing, picnicking and playing in the mountains and beaches. Often they were engaged in bowling parties or the new game of lawn tennis and bicycling. They were on the cusp of dramatic changes that ultimately defined a new era. Young people had new freedoms to mingle without chaperones. Women’s clothing was less confining to accommodate new athletic opportunities. And new forms of transportation allowed people to travel.
Alice Austen was in the center of these dramatic changes — both as a participant and a photojournalist.
Her Photographs Illustrated The Hand Book For Female Cyclists
By the 1890s, millions of bicycles were on the road and a new culture was developing around them. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared “woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle.”
The New Woman was gaining physical mobility, physical strength and redefining conventional notions of femininity on her bicycle. It’s no surprise that Alice Austen rode with them, capturing the wave with her camera.
When her friend Maria E. Ward (known as Violet) wrote the book Bicycling for ladies : with hints as to the art of wheeling, advice to beginners, dress, care of the bicycle mechanics, training, exercise (1896), she asked Austen to take photographs for illustration.
Ward also advocated for women knowing how to maintain and fix their own bicycles. She wrote, “I hold that any woman who is able to use a needle or scissors can use other tools equally well. It is a very important matter for a bicyclist to be acquainted with all parts of the bicycle, their uses and adjustment. Many a weary hour would be spared were a little proper attention given at the right time to your machine.” The book includes information on tools and how to use them for bicycle maintenance.
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