Alice Austen: a Photographer and Icon of LGBTQ

Alice Austen was a 19th-century New Yorker and photographer who loved to challenge the Victorian conventions and traditions by embracing her uniqueness and individuality. Now, she is considered a pioneer and icon of the LGBTQ community.

Alice Austen, Trude & I, 1891. Courtesy of Staten Island Historical Society.

Austen began her interest in photography when her uncle Oswald Muller brought home a camera. Peter Townsend Austen, another uncle of hers taught her the photographic processing, resulting to the two uncles converting a closet into Alice's darkroom. With this, Austen photographed her family and friends, eventually branching out from domestic shots to the street grind. She had an early eye for stories by documenting upper-middle class society and lower-class people around New York. Considered as a pioneer in documentary photography, there is one aspect of her life often underrepresented.

Austen had a 53-year-long relationship with a woman named Gertrude Tate, and history often loves to write her out from her bio. While New York and her home continued to be her muses, Gertrude Tate was another. Gertrude was a kindergarten teacher when Alice met her at the Catskill Hotel (known as Twilight Rest), where Tate was recuperating from typhoid fever. The two met, and Tate's spontaneity and warm humor enchanted and motivated Alice. According to the Alice Austen House, Tate was a primary force in motivating Austen for having her own, independent life focused on photography.

A wish to be buried together was mentioned when both of the women will pass away. Unfortunately, when the time came, their parents denied the wish. Now, the photographer's house stands as a national site of LGBTQ history by the National Park Service, and is the fourth site in NYC to receive honor, and the first state devoted to a woman.

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, Pickards Penny Photo Studio, Stapleton Staten Island, c. 1905. Courtesy of Alice Austen House.; Richard O’Cannon, Alice Austen seated with Gertrude Tate, September 1944. Courtesy of Alice Austen House.; Alice Austen, Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.; Alice Austen, Group Apparatus, 1893. Alice Austen Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society.

Images are from Staten Island Historical Society Archive and Wikimedia Commons.

2017-10-12 #culture #lgbtq #alice-austen #vintage-photography

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