Alice Austen was allegedly the first first female documentary photographer; she shot her subjects in their natural surroundings doing everyday things rather than in the stiff poses that were typical of her day. She photographed places and events as they really were rather than staging shots; she was a photojournalist before the word had even been invented. It seems to be a matter of little emphasis but no secrecy that Austen lived with her longtime female partner, Gertrude Tate, in their lovely 19th century house, “Clear Comfort”. Alice lived on inherited money, clearly in comfort, for most of her life, but in her twilight years, she lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and literally landed in the poorhouse. I happened upon her house on September 11th. Russell and I were attempting to explore the shoreline by taking Hylan down to Edgewater St. when we heard the peal of a dozen sirens and saw huge torrents of water shooting into the air.
Had it been any other day, in any other borough, we'd have run the other way, but considering the circumstances, we knew it was a memorial. And it was indeed a Rotary Club memorial for the NYFD. A fire boat was out on the water spouting beautiful but grave arcs of red, white, and blue water into the air.
From the sidelines, several trucks fired large jets of water into air towards downtown Manhattan, a mechanical fountain of tears to commemorate those which had already been shed.
Truth be told, it brought a tear to my eye as well. Several engines, new and old, were scattered along the street.
There seemed to be a memorial service going on in the white picketed front yard of the Alice Austen house, so, mindful that we seemed to be intruding but courageous because we felt a kinship with these folks, we headed up to the house.
The museum was open to visitors, while the gallery was open to local artists: 9/11 inspired paintings brought in for this one-day event were leaned against the walls. The space seemed cozy and the general attitude was exceedingly trusting compared to what you would encounter at a Manhattan or Brooklyn house museum where the wary eyes of volunteers miss nothing. The museum room was decorated in period furniture which was left inexplicably unattended. On one hand, I like the intimacy of that, but on the other I was worried about Alice’s framed pictures and the antique objects in the room. I picked up some literature about the museum and the artist, and also a card for a photography exhibit entitled, “Drawn To Water”, by Christine Osinksi. The exhibit runs from Aug 14 – October 15, 2005. I’ll have to stop in and view that. Other exhibits are listed here. Once again, I was struck by the architecture, rambling and pastoral, but with a collosal million-dollar view.
Thankfully, Staten Island preservationists were able to save this house and continue to protect it. Extra points to AliceAusten.org, the site is easy to navigate and sheds light on this fascinating woman.