Alice Austen House – Staten Island, New York - Atlas Obscura

Staten Island, New York

Alice Austen House

The pioneering photographer's prints are immortalized inside her childhood home. 

From the outside, this charming cottage looks like any other late 17th-century Dutch Colonial House. Step inside, and you’ll soon discover it was the home base for one of New York’s most celebrated female photographers.

Women in photography have a long and dynamic history, though most of the form’s early female photographers were from the United Kingdom or France. Elizabeth Alice Austen, a Staten Island-born practitioner with nearly 8,000 images to her name, was one of the United States’ earliest and most prolific female photographers.

Austen was born into an elite New York family in 1866. While growing up, she was fortunate to have two uncles that were tangentially connected to the medium. One of them, a sea captain, introduced the natural photographer her first camera at age 10. The other was a chemistry professor who taught her how to develop the glass plates she exposed to create prints.

By the time Austen was 18, she was an experienced portrait photographer, though she considered herself an amatuer. She spent her days traveling throughout New York and beyond, documenting sporting events, the city’s beaches, and life around her family’s cottage. She had a particular knack for capturing the many people who called New York home.

But unfortunately, Austen later fell on hard times. After the Wall Street crash of 1929 drained her inheritance, she was forced to begin selling her belongings to get by. In 1950, Austen officially declared herself a pauper and went to live in the Staten Island Farm Colony, the local poor house.

This, thankfully, didn’t last. Her work was resurrected the following year when her photographs were published through a collaboration with the Staten Island Historical Society (whom she had given 3,500 of her glass plate slides to) and a small publishing company working on a book that highlighted the history of American women.

The Austen family home now houses Alice Austen’s photo collection and features exhibitions of other photographers’ work. In recent years, the organization that runs the museum has also made an effort to better recognize a frequently overlooked part of her life: her relationship with her partner of 53 years, Gertrude Tate.

Austen met Tate during a visit to the Catskills at the turn of the 20th century. The two women spent decades together, and even lived together within the family’s cottage. The Alice Austen House was officially designated a national site of LGBTQ history by the National Park Service in 2017. This makes it the fourth site in New York City, and the first in the state devoted to a woman, to receive the honor.

Know Before You Go

It's closed on Mondays. During the months of January and February, please call to inquire about tours by appointment.