Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Alice Austen: Victorian Rebel

For this post were throwin' it back to 1866, the year Alice Austen was born. The name might not ring a bell in most minds, because her memory seemes to have suffered the same fate as the place she hailed from: Staten Island, New York. "Mentioned briefly in survey, but often overlooked," Austen, like the borough does not receive the recognition it deserves.  (Gonzalez, New York Times)

Alice was a photographer, the first of her kind. Although many regard her as a documentarian, she had a clear aesthetic and artistry to her work. Austen's first encounter with a camera came around 10 years old when her uncle Oswald allowed her to use his. Her other uncle, Peter, a chemistry professor at Rutgers showed her how to develop the photos she took. She became attached to it immediately, using it in unconventional ways like on moving trains and sail boats. (New York Times.) Her work reflected her as an artist and women in society. She would make tounge and cheek photos, commenting on women's place in Victorian society. Trude & I (Below) depicts two women in their underwear smoking cigarettes late at night; this about checks off everything a victorian women was not supposed to do. 

She was known most for her documentary photographs, which consisted of street scenes from New York City. Yet these were more than just tourist keepsake photos. She had an eye for social change, trying to map out the cities evolving diversity with the rise of immigration in New York. "Alice always photographed the people and places of her world as they actually appeared, giving us a beautiful visual window on 19th century America." (Aliceausten.org)

   Alice Austen, and her dog Punch, 1891

Alice was prolific beyond her art. Besides being one of the earliest female photographers, she was the first women on staten island to own a car. She also never married, and instead spent 50 years cohabiting with Gertrude Tate. "A rebel who broke away from the ties of her Victorian environment, Alice Austen created her own independent life."(Aliceausten.org)

Her house on the North Shore of Staten Island is now a landmark, with a gallery showcasing her work, as well as various up and coming and contemporary photographers work. There is a fund in her name that contributes to photography and the arts and aims to educate young photographers and artists. 

If you'd like to visit it's located at 2 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, NY 10304 and is open 6 days a week. 

"Trude & I" 1891
(Women were arrested for smoking during this time)
Austen and two female friends in drag.

An egg stand on Hester Street in Manhattan, 1895

Alice and her partner Gertrude, 1950's

Works Cited:
Gonzalez, David. "Alice Austen’s Type of Town." New York Times. New York Times 

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