Art History, Artists, Photographers, Photography

The photography of Alice Austen

Alice Austen was an American photographer from Staten Island. Her interest in photography started when she was only ten years old, her uncle Oswald Müller bring home a camera from Germany. As her interest was increasing, her other uncle Peter Townsend Austen which was chemistry teacher, taught her photographic processing. Both uncles converted a room into Alice’s darkroom. The earliest photograph by her that remains is dated 1884.

She was the first woman in her country to work outside the confines of a studio. She is best known as a documentary photographer; this style of photography was very unusual until the 20th century. She had a natural instinct for photojournalism 40 years before this word was coined.

Columbus Naval Parade, 1893 (Photo Credit: Alice Austen House)

By the time she was 18, she’s already a very accomplished and experienced photographer. Working steadily and taking pictures almost every day for the next five decades, Alice Austen produced about 8,000 photographs of which some 3,500 still exist.

Occasionally she undertook photographic projects of a quasi-commercial nature to oblige friends. When Violet Ward decided to write the book, Bicycling for Ladies, in 1896, Alice photographed another friend, the gymnast Daisy Elliott, as a model demonstrating the correct (and dangerously incorrect) positions in which to turn corners, coast, dismount and turn the vehicle upside down for repairs. Daisy posed motionless, her bicycle supported by a stout pole that later was made invisible when the illustrations were reproduced.

Wheeling, 1896 (Photo Credit: Alice Austen House)

Curiosities:

  • Her home was the subject of many of her images as she recorded in extensive and loving detail family members, friends, and happy events.
Fun & Games, 1885 (Photo Credit: Alice Austen House)
    • She considered herself an “amateur” in relation to her photographic pursuits. This was largely because she did not receive compensation for her work.
    • On June 20th, the Alice Austen House was officially designated a national site of LGBTQ history by the National Park Service. It is the first in the city and state devoted to a woman, to receive the honour.

References:

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