Home of Pioneering Woman Photographer Named LGBTQ Historic Site

Posted by on Wednesday June 21, 2017 | Events

Photo inscribed "The Darned Club'/A.A" Collection of Historic Richmond Town/ © Staten Island Historical Society

Photo inscribed "The Darned Club'/A.A" Collection of Historic Richmond Town/ © Staten Island Historical Society

The Alice Austen House, the home of the trailblazing woman photographer, was designated a national site of LGBTQ history by the National Park Service on June 20.  Austen (1866-1952) lived at her waterfront home on Staten Island, New York, for decades with her companion, Gertrude Tate. The house is now a museum devoted to interpreting Austen’s life and work and celebrating photography; it has hosted exhibitions by photographers Robin Schwartz, Yola Monakhov Stockton, Melissa Cacciola, Tim Hetherington and photographers who have documented immigration, housing and other issues that Austen photographed. At yesterday’s official announcement of the Park Service’s designation, photographer/filmmaker Joan E. Biren (aka JEB), a lesbian who has photographed lesbian life, gave the keynote address. Her speech was a powerful testament to the need to see diverse lives depicted in all their humanity and to celebrate the photographic histories of people marginalized by society. We asked Alice Austen House executive director Janice Monger and curator/caretaker Paul Moakley (who is also Deputy Director of Photography at TIME) for permission to reprint Biren’s speech here.

Biren began by saying that when she came out publicly in 1970, homosexuality was widely considered “criminal” and “sick.” She said:

“Now, imagine what it must have been like to live as a lesbian nearly a century before I came out. That’s when Alice Austen was living her life.
Fortunately for me and all of us, Alice has made it easier to imagine because of the photographic record she made of herself and her friends and lover. When I came out, I needed to see a reflection of myself as real and not diseased or demonized. I was desperate for pictures of lesbians. To generate these images I became a photographer myself. To feel I was not alone, I started what became an extensive excavation of lesbian history. When I found Alice Austen I was really happy.

“Unlike anyone else, Alice made photographs of her intimate, funny, sexy, private life with her women friends. To see them together, these Victorians, transgressing as many expectations of proper female behavior as they could in front of Alice’s camera. Smoking cigarettes, dressing in male drag—with mustaches! Active and athletic. Riding bikes and driving cars (and fixing them). Playing tennis and the banjo. Hugging each other and having so-called ‘slumber parties’ in bed together. Such a joy to see!

“Yes, Alice had the advantages of race and class which gave her the freedom to do this. But it was her personal courage and determination to make a record of her women-centered life that set her apart from so many other self-silencing lesbian visual artists of her time and long after.

“In addition to this unique record of her social circle, Alice made thousands of photographs out in the world, while many other women photographers stayed inside their studios. Largely self-taught, Alice became technically very adept and kept impeccable records of each negative. (I wish I had done half as well as Alice on that.) She was neither a social reformer nor one to romanticize. Alice photographed in the streets of Manhattan and when she traveled abroad. She made a major study of immigrants quarantined on the islands in this bay. Although her photography was almost entirely unpaid and unpublished, Austen’s body of work rivals that of any professional.

“When she became destitute after the stock market crashed in 1929, Alice sold her last remaining possessions for $600. But she gave her glass plate negatives to a friend from the Staten Island Historical Society. She didn’t sell them, she didn’t destroy them, she preserved those precious glass plates, some 7 to 8,000 of them. I don’t know if she could have guessed what a profound effect they would have on a young dyke photographer searching for her foremothers.

“We have an obligation as a nation to preserve our history for the generations to come. Queer history is important not only for the LGBTQ community, but for everyone—because our lives and culture often offer a valuable alternative to prevailing norms. LGBTQ people have always existed, but our history has either been invisible or actively erased.” Of the 92,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, only 14 are honored for their place in LGBTQ history.

Biren said of yesterday’s ceremony, “What is happening here today is a big deal. It is part of a broader initiative to discover, uncover and recover LGBTQ history and literally put us on the map. Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate were together as devoted lovers for 53 years. They lived right here together for nearly 30 of those years. But until recently, Gertrude Tate was practically nonexistent at this museum and mentioned once, in passing, on the website. The truth of their relationship was hidden.”

After thanking everyone who worked to preserve Austen’s legacy and celebrate her life, Biren added:

“This amazing, tangible property can now become a destination for all those seeking a comprehensive, inclusive, uncoded, consideration of Alice Austen and her contributions to American history. Welcome Alice and Gertrude and their loving relationship into the sunlight. They had so much fun here and now we can all find out more about it and share in their iconoclastic, irreverent lesbian lives.”

Like many women artists, Alice Austen was underappreciated in her own time. You can read about her dramatic and sometimes difficult life—and the current exhibition at the Alice Austen House (presented with Magnum Foundation)—on the Alice Austen House website.

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