Austen, Alice (1866–1952)

views updated

Austen, Alice (1866–1952)

American photographer. Name variations: Elizabeth Alice Austen. Born Elizabeth Alice Munn in 1866 in New York; died in 1952 in Staten Island, New York; daughter of Edward Stopford Munn and Alice (Austen) Munn; attended Miss Errington's School for Young Ladies.

Alice Austen was quite young when her father deserted the family. Alice's mother returned to her family's mansion, called Clear Comfort, on Staten Island, claiming her maiden name for both herself and her child. After receiving her first camera as a gift from an uncle at the age of 10, Austen was rarely without one. She used her stately house, family, friends, sporting activities, and social events for subject matter, and, by the age of 18, she was a serious photographer with professional standards. Much of her work was done in Manhattan, documenting working people and immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds. She also spent many summers abroad. Of all the thousands of pictures Austen took and developed on glass-plate negatives—many of extraordinary quality—she never tried to sell one, thus retaining her amateur standing.

Austen lost her money in the stock-market crash of 1929, and by 1945 was forced to give up her home. With her family gone, she was reduced to living at the Staten Island Farm Colony—a poorhouse. Fortunately, the Staten Island Historical Society saved 3,500 of her glass plates, some of which they displayed in a retrospective exhibition in 1951.

Around 1950, historian Oliver Jensen interested magazines such as Pageant, Holiday, and Life in publishing Austen's work, thus providing her with the funds to move into a private nursing home on Staten Island, where she lived until

her death in 1952. A solo exhibition of Austen's work was presented at Neikrug Galleries, New York, in 1978.


Robertson, Archie. "The Island in the Bay," in American Heritage. Vol XVII, no. 5. August 1966, p. 24.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.