As New Yorkers geared up for commemorations and World Pride celebrations, Humanities New York spoke with several partners who received Action Grants for Stonewall-related humanities programming. We begin a Stonewall 50 blog series by discussing the legacy of photographer Alice Austen and how her work is situated within LGBTQ history. HNY interviewed Victoria Munro, Executive Director of the Alice Austen House located on the North Shore of Staten Island. Don’t miss the rest of the series, join our newsletter.
HNY: For those not familiar with the photography pioneer Alice Austen, why is she important to where we are now in terms of human rights?
Victoria: Alice was born in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended. It’s a changing America, and a very rapidly changing New York City, that she is born into. Her father abandons her mother either just before she was born or just after. Alice and her mother move into this house, which we call Clear Comfort–now the Alice Austen House Museum. She grows up surrounded by adults. Her grandparents had lived here. She shares a room with her mother until her mother passes away. Two uncles lived here and an aunt. Alice is very doted upon and allowed to pursue a great many activities. Her pioneering spirit comes out very, very young. Alice has this intense interest in technology, new sciences, and physical activities. Her family allowed her to explore those things deeply. It’s unconventional for a Victorian woman. She was the first woman to own a car on Staten Island and she could fix it, too!
In Victorian times, photography did start to become quite a popular hobby for women, but it was studio photography. A lot of other women photographers at the time were photographing images of femininity, feminine poses. Alice was really doing the opposite. Her work, particularly the work taken on the streets of New York, is significant. Everyone knows the name of Jacob Riis and some other male contemporaries of hers, but they don’t know Alice Austen. That should give us pause.
We don’t say that she was the first woman photographer; however, she was one of the first woman photographers to actually take her camera outside of a studio environment. She took it onto the streets and approached people to take their photograph. This was at a time when Manhattan was extremely overcrowded. She mostly worked below 42nd street. Her interest was very much with immigrant populations, and she photographed immigrants at work. She did this with an extremely high level of skill; she would use multiple cameras. She’d take up to fifty pounds of photographic equipment with her. She would even take a portable darkroom kit with her when she traveled so that she could develop as well.
Alice was employed for a year to photograph the conditions and the people at the quarantine stations. This was the height of immigration into New York City. Huge boatloads of immigrants who had been on incredibly harsh journeys were pouring into the city. Most people only really know about Ellis Island, but there were also Hoffman and Swinburne Islands where immigrants were sent and put in quarantine. The conditions were harsh. At that time women were still expected to be chaperoned by a man, but here we have this Victorian woman going and photographing in these situations, which would have actually been considered relatively dangerous. Once her one-year contract for taking these images was up, Alice continued to go back and visit the quarantine stations for over ten years. She was truly committed to documenting this situation. She left us with this incredible historic record.
If we look at her life as lived by example, it’s an incredible story to translate into documenting women’s history, and an inspiring story for young men and women alike. Alice, she’s a rule-breaker. She broke the rules with her photography, in terms of some of her subject matter. One of my favorite parts of the collection is the intimate portraits of her and her women friends and their activities. Those photographs weren’t necessarily intended for public display–they were for their own entertainment, for her and her friends. She pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable for a woman at the time, and documented that. We’re incredibly lucky to have these images.
HNY: Alice died in 1952, 17 years before the Stonewall uprising. How does Stonewall shape our view of Austen’s life and legacy? Conversely, how does Austen’s life and legacy help us understand Stonewall and the activism that followed?
Victoria: Stonewall is this incredibly important marker for us. We can use it as a tool to say, “here we are.” This was the birth of the modern gay civil rights movement. Yes, we acknowledge those that have gone before us. It is interesting to look at Alice Austen in the context of that. It’s useful to put her into the context of the period, and to understand the way she carved out spaces in society for women. To have the freedoms that they wanted to have. We look at her life and see her own leadership qualities in what she did. I call her an accidental activist, because she provided us with so many pathways into various areas in terms of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and being able to live safely and out.
With the House Museum’s public designation, and our dedication to active programming around LGBTQ+ themes, Stonewall is incredibly important. Photography has been a very important element in documenting the gay civil rights movement. As a photographic museum we have the ability to create programming around that, and to celebrate artists that have worked in areas of LGBTQ activism. To lift that narrative up, we partnered with the LGBT Center in Manhattan and their Stonewall Forever project. That has been a Google-funded project where they’re gathered oral histories of people that were at the Stonewall Uprising and then younger activists who have followed in their footsteps. They ended up working with fourteen different individuals. Through participating in the Stonewall 50 Consortium, I was able to partner with them and provide them with an exhibition of portraits of their participants.
HNY: The National Park Service designation only amended the site to include LGBTQ history as an area of significance in 2017. Can you say more about how that designation shaped your work at the Museum?
Victoria: The LGBTQ community has long known about the history of the Alice Austen House, but it wasn’t institutionally recognized until recently. To deny it, you would be denying someone the opportunity to learn about the full experience of this historical figure.
We have moved to doing very active programming around our designation. We teach high school pride groups. We do photo workshops with seniors in the community through SAGE groups. We have started doing inter-generational photographic storytelling workshops, where we ask: what are our queer histories? How do we tell them through photography? We look at Alice’s work for inspiration.
HNY: How are other LGBTQ sites faring, that don’t have the National Parks designation?
Victoria: We are losing historic LGBTQ sites every day, really. There are fourteen designated sites nationally. Here in New York, we were the fourth. Stonewall is amazing. It’s still there. You have the monument. The National Park is across the street, although the Park Services don’t exactly have a home there to run programs out of–work in progress! But the Alice Austen House is one of the only sites that you can come and visit and have an experience that is complete. To be inside the home of this amazing queer love story is really special.
These designations protect and preserve these sites. Having these sites exist and be open is so incredibly important to LGBTQ people, but moreover it’s everyone’s history. We have a real commitment here to sharing that history. We see that as a key part of our work.
I recently testified in support of the historic designation of six new sites of LGBTQ history. One of the sites that we discussed is the Audre Lorde house. That’s a house on Staten Island that’s not very far from here where Audre Lorde lived with her partner Frances Clayton. They raised their children here. But it’s a private residence. I think it’s incredibly important to give it a landmark designation so that it can never be knocked down or something like that.
I think even if it’s a site that maybe even has been knocked down, to put that marker there, to be able to include it, to write it and have more people have knowledge around it is incredibly important. As a lesbian, I am always searching out places that connect with my history. As a gay person, every day is kind of a coming out day because we’re not fully accepted or integrated into society.
HNY: With her wealth, Alice carved out space for herself and her friends, today the museum continues to make space for people to tell their stories. How important are these spaces for LGBTQ history?
Victoria: Very important. Right now we have a show called “Stonewall at 50,” which Humanities New York funded, and it’s on until September. I have always wanted to work with Collier Schorr, who is a lesbian photographer, who has worked from the 1990’s onwards in New York. We were able to commission her to take these portraits of these incredible activists. They are life-size, or larger than life, on the walls of our galleries. Without a space this show wouldn’t happen; it wouldn’t have the same historical context.
Every school group that comes here gets to see that show, and we engage them in activities of deeper looking at those portraits. It gives us an avenue to talk about other kinds of social activism within the context of the Alice Austen House. We want to make sure, though, that we’re talking about these stories year-round. Pride Month is a big celebration, and particularly this year, with New York City being the World Pride city as well as hosting the Stonewall 50 celebration. It’s a key moment for us to say that we feel very proud here that we’re telling these stories every day.
Even when it comes down to a first-grade class, when they come here they’re learning how they can actually use photography to tell their story. They’re looking at how Alice used props and poses and all of these things that they can use to tell a story about themselves. That’s really powerful. I think she would be so incredibly proud that her home was the site of so much photographic activity, so much celebration of personal narratives, because she did so much of that work.
HNY: How has serving on the Stonewall 50 Consortium informed the work you do?
It’s kind of been overwhelming! I’ve been serving on the Stonewall 50 Consortium since early 2017. When we started off, there were only about seventeen of us at the table. It grew to 175 institutions. Because we’re a designated site, I field a large number of inquiries from these other institutions about how to program. There are some overlaps with racial equity work. If you’re going to be involved, I’d think about asking questions like: “How could I potentially help your institution do more?” “How can I provided a space for LGBTQ artists to exhibit their work?” Those are the questions that need to be asked. There have been a lot of people who have jumped on this. I’m in support of everyone getting on board, but it’s a matter of helping teach people to ask the right questions about how they can become involved.
HNY: Alice’s personal story continues to resonate today with the exhibit. What was life like for a same-sex couple at the turn of the twentieth century?
Victoria: One of the most interesting elements of Alice’s life is that she lived openly as a lesbian. Rather, though we’d call her a lesbian today, she would never have called herself that. She met Gertrude Tate in 1899. Based on letters that we have, we know that Alice had engaged in loving relations with other women prior to meeting Gertrude. For Victorian women at the time, incredibly close and romantic relationships were not discouraged. Especially if you were a white woman of wealth, that’s a great freedom. One of the scholars that has worked on this long-term reinterpretation project for our museum, Lillian Faderman, pointed out to us that at the time there was the term “Boston marriage.” It was the idea that two women could travel together, spend huge amounts of time together, write romantic letters to each other, and it was considered good practice for marrying a man. This allowed same-sex relationships between women to be relatively socially acceptable. As we move into the twentieth century, the situation actually gets worse and worse. Suddenly the word lesbian comes into existence as a medical diagnosis and a problem.
The question about same-sex relationships at the turn of the century really depends on your social strata and your gender. I think that there were a certain amount of freedoms that were actually greater at the turn of the century, potentially, than what we ended up with by the 1950’s. Because Alice was a relatively wealthy white woman, she could found societies and clubs, and carve out spaces to be in. This is something that all LGBTQ people have had to do so that they could find spaces to be safe together. She founded the Staten Island Garden Club and was its first president. She was an avid cyclist and member of the Staten Island Bicycle Club. She was a champion tennis player and spent a lot of time in her friend’s gymnasium in the city. It was woman-owned and for women. She created spaces to be together, a lot of women-only spaces. But I also think that some of the men in her social circle were gay.
In many ways she was able to live a relatively open life. Her family members were so open-minded and relatively eccentric themselves that she didn’t necessarily face resistance from her family; that said, Gertrude Tate faced it from hers. When Alice lost most of her money in the 1929 stock market crash, it left her and Gertrude in a situation where they had to work to support each other. For two women to face this in the latter years of their lives was incredibly difficult. They struggled on here at the Alice Austen House, which she named Clear Comfort, for another fifteen years together, and then eventually were evicted.
Post being evicted, they took a small apartment together. Gertrude could no longer care for Alice. Alice had terrible arthritis and was wheelchair bound. Gertrude was getting much older herself. They had run out of money. Gertrude’s family said that they would take her back, but they would not take Alice because they considered it “the wrong kind of devotion.” Alice signed a note saying that she had less than $20 to her name and ended up in the Staten Island poor house. Gertrude continued to visit her every week from Brooklyn, and actually managed Alice’s estate when she passed away. Gertrude lived another ten years. Their wishes were to be buried together in the Austen family plot here on Staten Island at the Moravian Cemetery. When Gertrude passed away, her family did not allow that to happen. So she’s actually buried in Brooklyn, very sadly, and not next to the love of her life. That incredibly powerful love story needs to be very clearly and deeply asserted here at the museum so that it can be shared with students and audiences that come here.
HNY: The photographs convey so much. They’re intimate portraits. They capture the spirit of her and her friends.
Victoria: That’s absolutely right. That’s what’s so key to the interpretation of Alice Austen’s work, is this fact that she worked outside of the confines of a studio. She must have been highly skillful at talking people into posing for her, because her friends appear in so many of these portraits doing quite wild things: cross-dressing, showing their ankles, appearing in their petticoats, and even photographed in bed. She really is very unconventional in all of those ways, and must have had an incredibly keen sense of humor as well. Some of them are very entertaining.
HNY: What brought you to Alice Austen House?
Victoria: All of the things we’ve discussed brought me here. It’s Alice’s story, it’s as an artist and curator, it’s her work, and being able to work with contemporary photographers, and educate people. I am so excited after years of planning, for both this Stonewall show that we have up and opening it at the very same time as our new permanent installation. We’re this kind of open book moving forward. Now the museum staff are excitedly living in this new space, where we have this opportunity to talk to all of Alice’s work, in its fullness thematically and proudly represent her relationship with Gertrude Tate. Whilst we’re in this era where a lot of things are uncertain, if I am operating within the museum walls, I feel incredibly encouraged and positive to move forward and develop more programming around LGBTQ themes. It’s an incredible time to work here at the Alice Austen House.
Read the next in the Stonewall 50 Series: Preserving LGBT Historic Sites.
The “Collier Schorr: Stonewall at 50” exhibit, supported in part by an HNY Action Grant, is on display through September 30, 2019. Visitors can also experience the museum’s new permanent installation, “New Eyes on Alice Austen,” which was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at aliceausten.org.
Interview by Scarlett Rebman, Grants Officer
Victoria Munro was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and has been a resident of New York for over two decades. She lives on the North Shore of Staten Island with her partner and their two children. In addition to being the Executive Director of the Alice Austen House, Victoria is an artist, art and art history educator, and curator. Victoria represents the Alice Austen House Museum in the Stonewall 50 Consortium, an working group of organizations committed to producing programming, exhibitions, and educational materials related to the Stonewall Uprising and/or the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement anchored to and/or commemorating the upcoming June 2019 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Victoria has been the lead interpretation and project manager of the Alice Austen House’s updated permanent installation and the LGBTQ+ programs director.
Alice Austen House fosters creative expression, explores personal identity, and educates and inspires the public through the interpretation of the photographs, life and historic home of pioneering American woman photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952). The Alice Austen House is the only museum in America dedicated to the work of a single female photographer and as such strives to provide programming and mentoring in the fields of women’s history, women’s studies and careers. In June of 2017, the Alice Austen House marked its designation on the National Register of Historic Places as a site of LGBTQ history.
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