As we took the ferry to Staten Island, we would soon discover a woman from the past who had much in common with women today – those who are living their lives on their own terms.
Born in 1866, Austen was one of America’s most prolific female photographers. She got her first camera at age eleven and spent the next 40 years capturing some 8000 images. Because she came from an enormously wealthy family, she never had to work. But she worked constantly on her photographs.
She’d carry 50 pounds of equipment on her bike and take photos in Staten Island or Manhattan. Austen is best known for her Manhattan street photography: postmen, bootblacks, fish mongers and street sweepers.
Alice Austen’s house was built in the 1690s and later renovated in the Victorian Gothic style. Set back on a pristine lawn which slopes into the New York Harbor, it has exquisite views of lower Manhattan and the Verrazano Bridge. Our infinitely knowledgeable host, Kristine, Visitor Services, Collections, and Development Associate, shared wonderful stories as we saw walls and walls of photographs and two period rooms: The Parlor and the Dining Room, both with recreated furniture based on Austen photographs.
Austen lived openly with a female “partner,” Gertrude Tate. She’d take provocative photos: “Four women pretending to be drunk on lemonade” or “Friends who are sick of posing for me.” She was also the first woman to own a car on Staten Island.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Austen lost all her money. Her home in foreclosure, she was evicted at age 79 and ended up in the poor house. A few years later, Oliver Jensen sought her out. An author who was writing “The Revolt of the American Woman,” he wanted one of her photos for his book.
When he found her in the poor house, he suggested selling some photos to Life Magazine. That money allowed her to move to a private nursing home until her death at 86. Jensen became one of The Friends of Alice Austen Inc., a group that helped create the House Museum and still operates it today.
In 1975, the City purchased the house, restoring it to its 19th century appearance. In 1985, it became a City Landmark and, in 1993, a National Historic Landmark.
For more information, go to www.aliceausten.org or call 718-816-4506.