Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
If Alice Austen weren't a real person, some novelist might have had to invent her.
If Alice Austen weren’t a real person, some novelist might have had to invent her.
Born in 1866, she was raised by her mother at the family home in Staten Island, an idyllic place called Clear Comfort. A precocious and unconventional girl, she learned how to work a camera at the age of 10 after her seafaring uncle brought one home, and she quickly demonstrated an unusual talent for the burgeoning art form.
Over the next 50 years, she took thousands of pictures, from formal portraits to candid street shots, collecting many of the latter into an 1894 portfolio called "Street Types of New York." The "Street Types" were in essence her guided tour to the city’s human festival, depicting fishmongers, policemen, knife-grinders, and dozens of other characters that could be found on the city’s teeming sidewalks.
Austen was one of the first women in the United States to take up tennis and bicycling, and with her friends Violet Ward and Daisy Elliott, she collaborated on a book about women and cycling, taking pictures of the gymnast Elliott demonstrating proper riding technique. She was the first woman in Staten Island to obtain a driver’s license. She wasn't shy about provoking comment: one of her photos from the 1890s shows her and the a local minister's daughter masked and smoking, wearing just their petticoats.
In 1899, when she was 33, Austen met the 28-year-old Gertrude Tate, and the two became inseparable. Tate moved into Clear Comfort in 1917. They lived together there until Austen’s story took a sad turn: the stock market crash of 1929 dealt a hard blow to her finances, and in 1945, after years of struggle, she lost her home. Tate and Austen rented an apartment together, but soon fell behind on the rent, and in 1950, they were separated when Tate’s family agreed to pay for a place for her to live – but only without her lifetime companion. Austen, at the age of 84, was forced to declare herself a pauper and moved into a public nursing home.
But in 1950 and 1951, researchers interested in the history of American women rediscovered Austen’s photographs. Before she died in 1952, Austen saw them published in Life and other national magazines, and attended an exhibit of her images that drew hundreds of guests.
Alice Austen’s story and photographic legacy are memorialized in her old home in Clear Comfort, which is now the Alice Austen House museum. Paul Moakley, deputy photo editor at Time magazine, is the curator and caretaker of the museum, and he has put together a show, "The New Street Types of New York," that pays homage to Austen’s "Street Types" by showcasing some of the most talented photographers working in the city today.
"It’s really nice to make people think about Alice’s work," says Moakley. "What would she be shooting if she were around today?"
The photographers represented in the show, which was co-curated by Anthony LaSala, are all photographing real people on the very real streets of New York, many using large-format cameras. Included are Wayne Lawrence’s gorgeous images of Bronx beachgoers; Ruddy Roye’s haunting black-and-white portraits of Brooklynites; Richard Renaldi’s glimpses into the city’s dissolute early-morning hours; and Peter Funch’s arresting composite photo tableaux of the city’s faces. Others featured in the show include Chris Arnade, Alice Attie, Dmitry Gudkov, Erica McDonald, Greg Miller, Christina Paige, Susannah Ray, Andy Vernon-Jones, Geordie Wood, and AnRong Xu. In an adjacent room, selections from Austen’s own "Street Types" are on display.
The "new street types" on view are from some of the city’s most far-flung corners, representing a diversity that would have been unthinkable in Austen’s time. But if she were alive today, she would probably be packing up her camera and heading out to take her own pictures of the city’s ever-evolving human parade.