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


Newsboys. Image ID: 79788

I'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 Collections.

Bootblacks. Image ID: 79803

Growing 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 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. Image ID: 105185

In 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.

Alice 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.

Clear Comfort, the Austen House, with the photographer's grandfather...... photo by Alice Austen. Image ID: 105186

Related Books:


  • Alice Austen House (2012). "Her Life." Retrieved from
  • 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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Very cool!

I particularly like the costumes and poses .. like so many photographs in this period, these images have been staged--and for a particular ideological purpose too ..

Austen Was a Lesbian

I have always understood that Austen was a lesbian. Many of her celebrated photos featured her friends in male drag. That seems an important element of her life to include in a short biography, no?

Who cares?

Who cares???? Her sexuality has not one thing to do with her work. Nadda. To imply that it is needed in her Bio is stupidity.

Austin's sexuality

May or may not be relevant. See writings about pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day to see how various scholars have handled his homosexuality. I personally would be interested to know everything about Austin. Was she a progressive Republican? A social gospeller? An avante garde bohemian? Did she identify with scorned immigrants and street people or did she simply see them as beautiful, accessible subjects? See also Blanche Weisen Cooke on Eleanor Roosevelt, or writings on Jane Addams and Leonard Da Vinci. Were they or weren't they? Does it matter? My feeling is that it takes conscious effort to NOT deal with a historical subject's sexuality, and that effort is better used positively -- to inquire and analyze.

Great Blog!

I love the proud pose of the newsgirl in the photo titled 'Newsboys'(interesting...) Great blog highlighting the importance of being Austen, and NYPL's collection of her work.

Great post highlighting a

Great post highlighting a talented woman's work. The pictures capture moments in time so well, you can really construct a story around that first photo.

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