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What a Woman Can Do With a Camera: The Photography of Alice Austen

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Newsboys., Digital ID 79788, New York Public LibraryI've always been partial to this particular photograph, there's just something about the girl's pose and smile, that draws one in. This image was taken by Staten Island native Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) who captured everyday life with her camera during the late 1800s and early 1900s in New York City.

You can see Alice's photos of messenger boys, street sweepers, organ grinders, and peddlers in the Digital Gallery.

Bootblacks., Digital ID 79803, New York Public LibraryGrowing up on Staten Island Alice learned to use a camera at the age of ten; recognizing her talent, her family even turned a storage closet into a darkroom for her. In her lifetime Alice took thousands of photographs. Amongst her favorite subjects were her friends and family, whom she photographed in her home Clear Comfort. She also took her cameras on 22 trips abroad. Her work can also be viewed online at aliceausten.org. The stock market crash of 1929 left Alice in dire financial straits, by 1945 she lost her family's estate and sold her last possessions for $600.00. The one thing she could not part with? Her photographs, she gave these to a friend from The Staten Island Historical Society.

Alice Austen (1866-1952) at age 22, posed at her home "Clear Comfort" published by Friends of Alice Austen House., Digital ID 105185, New York Public LibraryIn 1950 Alice was admitted to the New York City Farm Colony, a poor house in Staten Island. That was the same year that historical writer Oliver Jensen became interested in her work. He would go on to publish her photographs in the book The Revolt of American Women; A Pictorial History of the Century of Change from Bloomers to Bikinis-from Feminism to Freud and in Life and Holiday magazine. The proceeds from the sales of her photographs allowed Alice to spend the rest of her days in a private nursing home.

You can learn more about her life in Alice's World: The Life and Photography of An American Original by Ann Novotny. You can also visit her home Clear Comfort (a National Historic Landmark). The house was saved from demolition and restored by the Friends of Alice Austen House in the 1960s and is now a museum.

Clear Comfort, the Austen House, with the photographer's grandfather...... photo by Alice Austen., Digital ID 105186, New York Public LibraryAlice was not the only female photographer in NYC at the turn of the 19th century. And while Alice herself was independently wealthy for most of her life photography was a viable profession for women, as illustrated by a Ladies Home Journal article published in 1898 titled: "What a Woman Can Do With a Camera" and "A Series of Beautiful Photographs Showing what American Women Have Done With the Camera," published in 1901.

Amongst the women profiled are Zaida Ben-Yusuf, Jessie Tarbox Beals, and Gertrude Käsebier. All three had studios in New York City and were well known for their work.

Related Books:

Sources:

  • Alice Austen House (2012). "Her Life." Retrieved from aliceausten.org/her-life
  • Corinne, Tee A. "Alice Austen." Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Ed. Marc Stein. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. Biography In Context. Web. 22 Apr. 2013
  • HILTON K. "E. Alice Austen Photographed Earlier Gracious Days of S.I." New York Times (1923-Current file): 39. Apr 09 1976. ProQuest. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
  • The New, York T. "Old Friends Honor Miss Alice Austen." New York Times (1923-Current file): 19. Oct 08 1951. ProQuest. Web. 22 Apr. 2013

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