Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Alice in Wonderland

 *Please take the time out to vote for the Alice Austen house to recive a $100,000 grant to help restore it voting ends may 21st and you can vote everyday once a day, just sign in with face book go to our borough and click the Alice Austen House www.partnersinpreservation.org

Strange that I would call this post Alice in Wonderland, but the life of Alice Austen is just that, a wonder. And her life and Staten Island was indeed a wonderland. Alice had lived through the turn of the century and saw riches that ultimately ended in rags due to the stock market crash in 1929 when she was 63, but it was her undying compassion of photography that would save her in the last months of her life so that she would die comfortably in Sea View Nursing Home. Alice often goes unnoticed, this in my opinion most likely has to do with the fact that she was likely a lesbian in a day and age where such a life style was considerably  frowned upon and misunderstood. But Alice did not care and she made sure everyone knew this as you can see in some of her pictures. Also she never tried to sell her work or make a profit on it. She took pictures purely for leisure and her work was only published once in a book written by her friend about women riding bicycles.

Violet Ward and Daisy Eliot. Photo by Alice Austen. Violet was a childhood friend of Alice's. Daisy Eliot was a professional gymnast. Violet, an enthusiastic cyclist, invented a mechanism for bicycles that was universally adopted. Alice took the photographs for Violet's book, Bicycling for Ladies, published in 1896. Daisy was the model.

Alice And Gertrude
Alice Austen was born in Staten Island, New York on May 23, 1866 in St. Johns Church. She lived with her mother and her grandparents as well as her mothers siblings in their home on the north shore called Clear Comfort. Her father abandoned her and her mother before she was even born and so she was raised in her grandparents home. Her home Clear Comfort was in a prime location with beautiful views of the Narrows. She would often spend hours just watching the ships entering the harbor and departing. Her uncle was a chemistry professor at Rutgers University and he is the person who introduced Alice to her passion. She was just 10 years old when her other uncle Oswald returned home from Germany with a camera in his hand. Between her two uncles they helped to shape her passion by installing a dark room in a closet in the house. Back in a time with no running water, she would go to the well in her yard, no matter summer or winter to wash her glass plates and get water for developing her pictures. This has a direct contribute to the amount of pictures that she took. The price of developing pictures was astronomical, but with the wealth that the family had they were able to provide the best equipment for her to grow. It is estimated that Miss Austen took about 8,000 pictures, though not all of them have survived the years.

The Darned Club
Cross dressers
One to one thousand (south beach)
In 1899 Alice met Gertrude Tate in Brooklyn and they quickly became friends. After traveling to Europe with Alice on many summers, she finally moved in with Alice into Clear Comfort in 1917 against the wishes of her family since they felt that the "friendship" they had was not appropriate. They stayed together for some 55 years. Gertrude and Alice along side two other women would become known as the Darn girls or the "Darned Club". They welcomed this name from the men that tried to court them, since they never had any plans of marrying any of them, they became known as the darned girls. They mocked the men by cross dressing for photos and this was funny to them though not to anyone else. They did not care though.

Possibly the most interesting thing Alice took pictures of though is the street scenes. From bicycles to the development of cars, and everything in between. She took pictures of the poor, the working, and the rich. She never discriminated her subjects, as she saw the unique beauty in everything she laid eyes on.

 horse drawn cab
Alice was very athletic. She was a swimmer, a tennis player, a bike rider, among other things. This was very helpful to her since she was well built she was able to carry around all the equipment she needed to take her pictures wherever she was or wanted to go.  The capture of street life in turn of the century New York is really what has made her so well known. No one has done such a extensive job in doing this. The striking difference in Alice and other female photags in her time is very clear. Women where often known to capture fashion and love along with a childhood dream like feel. Alice as far as anyone can tell held little interest in this. She captured more of a nature/man relationship and the nitty gritty city life.

oyster farmers
Alice in her interview
When the stock market crashed in 1929 all of the savings that she was living off of from her grandfather was lost. Alice and Gertrude had no means to support themselves and started to sell off their silver and then the furniture in Clear Comfort. But this was all in vain and only bought them some time. After Alice took out two mortgages on the home it went into foreclosure and they had no where to go. Gertrudes family would only take her in, so Alice was sent to live in the Farm Colony poor house where she would stay for some time. Though right before the foreclosure, Alice told a friend where all her glass slides could be found and begged him to save them from the basement of Clear Comfort. In 1950 Picture Press started a project on the history of American women. Oliver Jensen of Picture Press sent out a standard form letter to various archives and historical societies, asking if any had interesting images for the project. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society responded and invited someone to look through 3,500 uncatalogued Alice Austen glass plate negatives. Astonished at what he had found he tracked Alice down to the Farm Colony and interviewed her. After running her pictures and story in LIFE magazine as well as Holiday magazine ( lets not forget her travels), her portion of the money raised was around $4,000 and she was able to be moved to comfortable home in Sea View Nursing Home where she died about 8 months later on June 9th 1952.

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