STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — June 11, 2012. On Saturday a group of Staten Islanders paid homage to Alice Austen — a photographer whose style anticipated modern photojournalism, an independent woman who owned and repaired an automobile, and a lesbian whose photographs broke through the mores and taboos of the time in which she lived.
Alice Austen in 1951
Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 — June 9, 1952) was a native Staten Islander who became a photographer shortly after her uncle, Oswald Müller, introduced her to the medium, in 1876. Another of Austen’s uncles, Peter Townsend Austen, taught her photographic processing. Over the course of 40 years Austen produced 8,000 photographs, half of which survived her passing.
Austen lived and worked in her parent’s house, in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island. The house, built in the 17th Century, overlooks New York harbor and is a national historical landmark and a city park. It affords a spectacular view of the Verrazano Narrows and the bridge that spans the entrance to New York’s busy harbor.
In 1917, Austen was joined at “Clear Comfort,” as the house was called, by her lifelong companion, Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871-1962) of Brooklyn. Alice and “Trude” weathered good times and bad — Austen lost her inheritance in the stock market crash of 1929 and sold her belongings in an attempt to keep her family home. By 1950 she had become destitute and moved into the New York City Farm Colony, Staten Island’s poorhouse. Her fortune improved in late 1951, as a result of a story in Life magazine that featured her travel photos, and Austen was able to move to a nursing home. Supported by the Staten Island Historical Society, Austen remained at the home until her death in 1952. Austen and Tate had both requested they be buried next to one another but the respective families denied this request. Austen was buried in the family plot at Staten Island’s Moravian Cemetery.
Regarded as a social critic for her photographs of immigrants and minorities — and for her photographs of previously undocumented aspects of lesbian life — Austen is remembered fondly by progressives as well as photographers. Even New York City’s most conservative borough has seen fit to name both a ferry boat and a public school after its most famous photographer.
On Saturday, June 9, a dozen Staten Islanders paid tribute to Austen by gathering at her gravesite. Almost all of those in attendance brandished cameras.
Event organizer Gerard Mawn read a poem aloud in a brief ceremony honoring Ms. Austen. “Crossing The Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson — the same poem that was read at Austen’s funeral — is a poignant piece that deals with death. It contains a number of maritime metaphors that are particularly apt as Austen spent most of her life at “Clear Comfort,” her Rosebank home, overlooking New York’s harbor.
Expressing his desire to see Austen’s legacy preserved, Mawn pointed out that Moravian has allowed the gravesite to deteriorate.
“What’s really important I think is that we need to call attention to what’s happening here. That this person who has contributed so much to Staten Island society — photographs, and history, and documentation — has a plot that needs work, that needs to be restored to the way that it was. And even Alice’s grave area should honor her in the way in the way that she’s being honored by having a ferryboat in her honor, and a school on the Island in her honor, and the museum, in her honor. So that we preserve our history,” Mawn said.
The former home of Alice Austen, now a museum as well as a park, is also endeavoring to preserve the photographer’s legacy – displaying her work, her cameras, and supporting local photographers — many of whom, like Austen herself, remain largely unappreciated outside of the “forgotten borough.” Supporters hope that one day Austen’s work will appear in the galleries of New York’s premier museums. In the interm the Staten Island Historical Society and the Alice Austen Museum redeem the current ahistorical moment with individual acts of remembrance.
To learn more about Alice Austen:
- The Wikipedia Biography
- The Cartage Biography
- Official Alice Austen Website
- Staten Island Historical Society Database