All About the Legacy and History of Alice Austen:
Alice Austen was born in 1866, and she became one of America's earliest female photographers. I am going to give you a little insight into the artistic world of Alice Austen. Her life was not an easy one from the beginning. Her Mother had no means of supporting Alice on her own so she moved back to her parents home "Clear Comfort.” Alice grew up in a family of all adults, there were no other children in the household.
The first camera that Alice was introduced to, was one that was purchased by her Uncle, Oswald Muller who was a Danish sea captain. The camera was a bulky wooden box and Oswald Muller would demonstrate how to use it to his wife, and other members of the Austen family including Alice, she was amazed at the camera and what it could do.
When her uncle left on one of his many voyages he gave permission for Alice to use the Camera. She was only ten years old at the time but she was strong and intelligent enough to get it on the tripod and balance it. Alice's Uncle Peter, who was a professor, knew she had a gift with a camera and for her it was more than a toy. She would spend hours developing plates and tanning and fixing her prints. She would also take the plates to the pump outside behind the garden and wash them in a basin.
By the time she was eighteen years old she was an accomplished photographer with professional standards. The people and places closest to her were what she photographed. She also liked to do self portraits, some say it was because she wanted to show everyone how smartly she was dressed and others say it was because her family members did not want to pose anymore. Alice was active, social and well traveled. Every place she went she took her photographic equipment with her. It was quite heavy and sometimes it would fill a steamer trunk.
When she was on Staten Island she would carry her equipment down the unpaved streets, to beaches, ponds, to Ice Skating parties and also to the homes of friends who were having parties. Alice loved playing lawn tennis as well as photographing the other players.During the 1890's Alice began traveling off Staten Island, she visited Upstate New York, Fishkill, Fort Ticonderoga as well as Vermont. It is said that in 1892 Alice and her mother went to Europe. In the summers it is said she traveled all around Europe. Wherever Alice went, so did her photography equipment. If she was in New York she would just walk around the streets taking photographs of everyday people. As she approached the age of Fifty she found herself being more involved in Staten Island Society. In 1910, Miss E. Alice Austen was listed annually in the New York Society Register. She also was at the Richmond County Country Club and the Colony Club in Manhattan.
Photography was not Alice's only love, she also loved to garden; she worked daily from spring to fall, continuing her grandfather's work, turning the ground of "Clear Comfort '' into a horticultural showplace. In later years Alice had some financial difficulties, especially after the stock market crashed in 1929. Alice was sixty-three years old and lost everything. From that point on she was in a desperate struggle to survive. Unknown to Alice, a small publishing company was planning to do a book on American women. With that being said she made some money and was able to be moved out of Farm Colony and into a private nursing home.
Alice Austen was driven on October 9, 1951, to a show off her photographs and to meet the 300 guests who had been invited to mark Alice Austen Day. Alice Austen died in 1952 and was laid to rest in the family grave in the Moravian Cemetery. Alice Austen was the first woman on Staten Island to buy a car and a skilled tennis player. Visit Alice Austen's "Clear Comfort" residence at 2 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island NY 10305.
To continue on Alice Austen’s legacy, both a Staten Island Ferry boat and the Alice Austen School, PS 60, both located on Merrill Avenue in the Bulls Head section of Staten Island, are named in her honor. The play Alice in Black and White by Robin Rice follows Austen's life from 1876 to 1951. The drama also depicts Oliver Jensen's hunt for Austen and her glass plate negatives and eventual discovery of them. In 2016, the 150th anniversary of Austen's birth, the play had its world debut at the Kentucky Center before having its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters. Both plays were performed by the Looking for Lilith Theatre Company. The StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award went to the play.
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