For the first installment of PhotoForward’s “Vintage Friday” series, I thought it appropriate to feature Alice Austen—a pioneering female photographer who bucked Victorian customs, traveled extensively and captured about 8,000 photographs during her lifetime (1866-1952).
A curated portion of Austen’s photographs will be on display in the exhibit, alongside other works from contemporary photographers who have followed in her spirit of capturing the street. “The New Street Types of New York” opens tomorrow at the Alice Austen House, a Victorian Gothic cottage-turned-museum in Staten Island where Austen lived for much of her life. (The exhibit and glimpse into Austen’s life was also featured in The New York Times Lens blog this week.)
Introduced to photography by her sea captain uncle when she was 10 years old, Austen was a competent photographer by age 18, and carried her photo gear to many travel destinations. As her biography on the Austen House website states, “Weighing as much as fifty pounds and sometimes filling a steamer trunk [gear] included cameras of different sizes, a tripod, magnesium flash attachment, and glass plates as big as eight by ten inches. In a horse-drawn buggy in the 1880’s and 1890’s, she carried her equipment around the unpaved roads of Staten Island…to Midland Beach, South Beach, to winter skating parties on the Island’s frozen ponds and creeks and private parties at the homes of friends.”
Austen’s favorite subjects were her many friends, tennis matches and spectators (she loved the sport), and later, denizens and workers of the streets of New York. She never married, but lived with companion Gertrude Tate for 32 years.
Reading more about Austen’s life reveals her sense of adventure, youthful spirit and willingness to take chances, both in her art and her life. The exhibit is open through September 28.