Classic Photographers

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Alice Austen

Since yesterday’s post didn’t have any photographers mentioned in them, I have plucked a new name from the list.

Elizabeth Alice Munn was born on the 23rd of May 1866 in St. John’s Church on Staten Island where Alice’s father had abandoned the family before she was born. She never used the name Munn and would initial her glass-photographic-negatives with “EAA” for Elizabeth Alice Austen. With no household income and no husband, Alice’s mother Alice Cornell Austen, moved back to her own parent’s home, which was known as “Clear Comfort”. Alice was the only child in the household, which consisted of Alice’s mother, Alice’s maternal grandparents, her mother’s siblings – a brother and a sister who was married to Oswald Müller.

Alice became interested in photography when her uncle Oswald brought home a camera around 1876. Alice’s uncle Peter was a chemistry professor and he showed Alice how to use the developing chemicals in a darkroom. 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 would produce over 8,000 photographs.

In 1899 Alice met Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871–1962) of Brooklyn, New York. She became Alice’s life long companion. Gertrude moved in with Alice at Clear Comfort in 1917. By 1900 her uncle Oswald was the head of household and the family had two servants and a cook.

Alice lived off the income from the money left by her grandfather but all was lost in the stock market crash of 1929. Alice at age 63 now had no income. She tried serving tea on her lawn with Gertrude for a few years but it never provided enough money to pay her bills. She began to sell off the home’s silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money for food and fuel. She eventually mortgaged the house which had been owned outright, but lost the title in 1945.

Forced to move, Alice sold her remaining possessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey. When the dealer began emptying her home she panicked and called her friend Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society for assistance. McMillen was very familiar with the collection and had been asking Alice to donate the images for years. This time Alice was ready to give them to the Society. McMillen rushed over with a friend, gathered Alice’s collection of glass plate negatives and brought them to the basement of the old Third County Courthouse in Richmondtown, rescuing them from being destroyed. Alice then moved to a small apartment but eventually moved into a nursing home. Her final indignity was on June 24, 1950, when she was declared a pauper with no assets 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. Oliver Jensen of Picture Press sent out a standard form letter to various archives and historical societies, asking if any had interesting images for the project. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society responded and invited someone to look through the 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Alice Austen glass plate negatives of the roughly 9,000 she took in her lifetime.In October 1950, Constance Foulk Robert, a research assistant, met with Brinley and McMillen to go through the negatives. Constance brought Oliver Jensen with her on a next trip and an agreement was signed with the Historical Society. Oliver Jensen then published several of Alice’s photos in the book Revolt of Women. He also wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and six pages of Alice’s travel photos in Holiday magazine.

The publications raised more than $4,000. Alice Austen’s 1/3 of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the Farm Colony and back into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was the guest of honor at an exhibition of her photographs at the Richmondtown museum where over 300 guests had been invited to celebrate 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.”

Alice continued to be supported by the Staten Island Historical Society and lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died peacefully, in her sleep 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.

The Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond today owns a large number of glass plate negatives but it does not hold copyright.

The house “Clear Comfort” dated from the 17th century and 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. Please visit www.AliceAusten.org for more information.

 

 

 

 


Categorised as: Photography


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