Alice Austen House
Part of Town:
Alice Austen Collection: Alice’s interest in photography began at the age of ten when her Uncle Oswald brought home a camera from Germany, on one of his many voyages abroad. Through experimentation she taught herself how to operate the complex camera mechanism, judge exposure, develop the heavy glass plates, and make prints. Alice also took copious notes about the picture-making process. On the envelopes in which she stored her negatives she diligently penciled the brand name of the plate and of the lens she had used, the exposure time, the aperture and focal distance, light conditions, the subject, and the exact time at which she had taken the photograph. Poring over these envelopes later, she learned to correct her mistakes. By the time she was 18 Alice was an experienced and highly accomplished photographer.
Working steadily and taking pictures almost every day for the next five decades, Alice produced about 8,000 photographs of which some 3,500 still exist. In her earliest photographs Alice’s devotion to her home, “Clear Comfort,” was especially evident. Her home was the backdrop and subject of her images as she recorded in extensive and loving detail family members, friends, and happy events. These photographs captured a relaxed upper middle class enjoying a now long-vanished social life of ritualized leisure pursuits. From picnicking in the mountains, cavorting at the beach, and bowling parties in the private alley at a friend’s mansion, to the new game of lawn tennis, the sport she enjoyed with the greatest enthusiasm, and the latest fad of bicycling, on the new “safety” bicycles with their pneumatic tires, along the unpaved roads of Staten Island – Alice’s camera captured it all. It has been said that it was Alice’s athletic stamina, as much as her artistic sense, that made her such an extraordinary photographer. She even climbed atop a fencepost, not caring if she exposed her ankles, in pursuit of the picture she wanted of a local auto speed trial.