Alice Austen (1866-1952) holds a distinctive place in the history of photography in America. She took to photography with keen interest combined with natural talent and technical patience—washing the fragile delicate glass plate negatives at a pump in her yard, mixing chemicals in a closet. She taught herself how to time her exposures, and to select the essential image to record with her keen eye.
What resulted from her persistent dedication is a lifelong collection of photos equal or surpassing many another photographer’s work of her time – enduring as social history as much as art.
This documentary includes a wide range of her work: scenic vistas, Victorian social life, New York City people – from urchins to policemen – Ellis Island immigrants, extensive travel and sporting activities, including tennis, first introduced to America on Staten Island.
Finally, there is the incredible story of her discovery by Oliver Jensen of LIFE magazine and of her rescue from a lonely bed in the almshouse,
Born into comfortable circumstances on New York’s Staten Island, Alice Austen felt no need to pursue fame or fortune. In her old age neither, tragically, were to be hers. Except for a moment of national recognition in 1951, a year before her death, her work had never been seen. The documentary led to the restoration of her house “Clear Comfort” as a beloved New York City house museum and helped restore her reputation as an American original.
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