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Focus on Alice Austen

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Resting upon a slope that overlooks a breathtaking view of the Narrows, is the Alice Austen House, a Victorian Gothic cottage and museum dedicated to the memory of one of Staten Island’s most famous photographers.

Alice Austen, born on Staten Island in 1866, grew up in Rosebank in this house built in 1690 that was fondly called “Clear Comfort” by her grandmother. Austen and her mother moved in with her grandparents after they were abandoned by her father, Edward Stopford Munn. She lived there most of her life, until she was forced to move due to financial hardships in 1945. A group of concerned citizens saved the house from demolition and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Ahead of her time, Austen is best known for her photojournalistic style, working outside of a studio setting to document the Victorian era in more than 3,000 surviving photographs. She set up her own darkroom, and everywhere she went, her camera equipment — which sometimes weighed close to 50 pounds — was in tow. Some of her photos were of family and friends, while others were of immigrants and “street types,” documenting street sweepers, rag pickers, fish mongers, shoeshine boys and more. In addition to photography, the athletic artist also loved the new-at-the-time sports, biking and tennis, and she traveled the United States and abroad.

Many of Austen’s friends visited Clear Comfort during her lifetime. When she was in her mid 50s, her friend Gertrude Tate — who had a radio show about etiquette and taught children’s dance classes — moved in. They lived together for more than 30 years. Toward the end of her life, Austen became ill, destitute, and was placed in a home for the poor. She hated it there, and Tate couldn’t help because she had little money of her own.

The Staten Island Historical Society showed some of Austen’s glass plate negatives to Oliver Jensen who published them in his 1952 book, “The Revolt of American Women,” as well as in the magazines Life and Holiday. They garnered acclaim and earned Austen enough money to move into a private nursing home.

On Oct. 9, 1951, more than 300 guests celebrated Alice Austen Day at the museum in Historic Richmondtown with an exhibition of her photos.

“I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out to be a pleasure for other people,” she said at the event. She died eight months later, peacefully in her sleep.

Clear Comfort was restored in the mid 1980s, and now serves as a museum that celebrates the life and times of Austen. The Alice Austen House hosts events throughout the year, and this July and August it sponsors photography camps (for ages 7-12 and ages 13-17), as well as etiquette programs for ages 5 and up. The grounds of Clear Comfort come alive with the Isadora Duncan Dance Company performance on July 24, musical guests playing concerts, and, of course, people of all ages looking through their own cameras to snap that perfect photograph.

Austen was an intrepid artist and a pioneering woman. Through composition, costuming and satire, she captured 19th-century America while producing high-quality work. Thanks to the Alice Austen House, visitors can learn about her life and enjoy glimpses of Victorian-era America.

Alice Austen House [2 Hylan Blvd. in Rosebank, (718) 816-4506]. Open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 pm. Closed January, February and major holidays. Suggested donation of $2 per person. For more information about the fees for special events and photography or etiquette camps, visit www.aliceausten.org.

Updated 7:07 pm, July 6, 2011
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