Sunday, January 6, 2013

AUSTEN, ALICE: Legendary Photographer (c) By Polly Guerin

Alice Austen’s white cottage still stands at the water’s edge in the neighborhood of Clifton on Staten Island--- a testament to Alice’s long and remarkable life as a photographer. Born into comfortable circumstances Alice had no need to pursue a career, but photography, that started out as perhaps a hobby, became her passion. A young woman determined to succeed; Alice deserves her due recognition as a pioneer in this genre. 
FIRST LADY OF THE LENS She was one of America’s earliest and most prolific female photographers and over the course of her life created 8000 images. For one thing in the late nineteenth century, cameras were a cumbersome affair, but Alice surpassed any restraints and managed to carve a niche in the photography world with images that preserve a myriad of subjects. She captured the great transatlantic ships that still pass in front of her house, the coming of the automobile to the beginning of tennis, the countryside and world beyond. The Alice Austen House Museum, Clear Comfort, is located at 2 Hylan Blvd., Staten Island, New York.
FROM SOCIETY BELLE TO PHOTOGRAPHER It was her Danish Uncle Oswald who brought home a camera in 1876 and her Uncle Peter who showed her how to develop the negative images on the dry plates she exposed. Alice was captivated by the new art form and advanced forward with alacrity. However, Alice always insisted, that except for these initial demonstrations, she simply “learned by doing.” By the time she was eighteen, Alice was a professional photographer and her family was sufficiently comfortable to indulge Alice in the best of the cumbersome equipment she required. A closet on the second floor was converted into Alice’s darkroom. Ships sailing the Narrows were her favorite photographic subject---over the years she saw and recorded them all---racing yachts, schooners, tugs, warships, luxury liners and immigrant ships from the vantage point of Clear Comfort, a Victorian Gothic cottage on the shores of the Verrazano Narrows.
LAUNCHING A NEW CAREER Most belles during Alice’s time would not have taken on such a demanding task as photography was not a lighthearted affair. Wearing her Sunday best, a bustle fashion gown with striped over skirt one can only imagine how difficult it may have been to photograph the fine old houses and historic buildings on the island. It was not an easy adventure--at the same time lugging around fifty pounds of photographic equipment. She hauled her camera and tripod along to picnics, masquerades and chronicled the social life of musical evenings in her friends’ parlors as well as family gatherings and weddings. She even climbed a fence post, not caring if she exposed her ankles, in pursuit of the picture she wanted of local auto speed trials.
POSING HER SUBJECTS Alice would go to almost any length of get the picture she wanted. She was rather a perfectionist and she did not care how impatient her complaining subjects became. The expression of her subjects and the overall composition had to be just right and the exposure in the right light. She enjoyed recording Americans at work, boat races, amusement parks, country fairs in Vermont and the great world fairs in Chicago and Buffalo. She may have spent more than twenty summers aboard and always traveled off the beaten path to capture the activities in some tiny town and she felt equally free to visit places considered unseemly for a lady. Alice usually traveled with two cameras capable of producing images of different proportions, which filled a large steamer trunk. It was a cumbersome affair but Alice was a strong woman capable of carrying her heavy equipment creating in her lifetime images with lasting beauty that chronicle a legacy from America’s past.
     Alice Austen used her camera in a very personal way to record people, places and interesting travels. Her photographs show us real people and places as they actually appeared and we are made luckier by the fact that she captured these images of a wonderful time in America’s history. I suggest that you also read:: ALICE’S WORLD, The Life and Photography of an American Original: Alice Austen, 1866-1952 by Ann Novotny, Chatham Press, Old Greenwich, Connecticut.
   Polly loves to hear from her readers, please send your comments to

1 comment:

  1. Great, i very love Alice Austen who is the great and charm man. i think u like Polly Guerin, and you will like him.
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