Historic, but not famous

Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) was a Staten Island photographer. She lived in a house built in the 17th century, but was expanded during the 19th century by her grandparents. The house was called Clear Comfort and was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976. It is also known as “Alice Austen House” and is located in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island. This house is where Alice discovered photography when her uncle brought a camera home in 1876.

Alice’s uncle was a chemistry professor and helped her build a darkroom on the second floor of the home. She produced over 8000 photographs over the next 40 years. Ms. Austen photographed the daily lives of people on Staten Island and the lower east side of Manhattan, especially immigrants.

She had a life long companion, Gertrude Amelia Tate. Ms. Tate moved into the home, but moved out during the depression though they remained close. The families of both women objected to the relationship and did not honor their wish to be buried next to each other.

Alice lost all of her money, the house and eventually her possessions and photos during the depression. They were rediscovered in 1950 finding 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Austen glass plate negatives. The photos were published in a book “Revolt of Women”, a Life magazine article and Holiday magazine. This brought Alice enough money to live in a private nursing home. She was supported by the Staten Island Historical Society until her death. Many of her photos are part of their collection.

The Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond owns over 7,000 original items (glass plate negatives, film base negatives, and original prints) by Austen. However, the society does not have the copyright. This collection is cataloged, digitized, and stored in an archival manner at Historic Richmond Town, and it is available for study by appointment. The Alice Austen House Museum also has a collection of photographs, with about 300 on display in the resource room, which is open to the public.

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