December 8, 2023

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New podcast reveals lives of queer 19th-century females by means of letters of photographer Alice Austen

Alice Austen left her Staten Island farmhouse at 2 Hylan Boulevard in a hurry. It was 1945, and the elderly photographer was becoming evicted from her lifelong household immediately after defaulting on the house loan. Just before getting transferred to a poorhouse and divided from Gertrude Tate, her companion of more than 4 many years, Austen arranged for an antiques supplier to obtain some furnishings, and for the Staten Island Historic Modern society to take 3,500 glass plate negatives—around fifty percent of her life’s do the job.

Other points were being left powering, nevertheless, lingering in corners and cabinets. The second-floor closet was however outfitted as the darkroom exactly where she formulated and printed her road images of women of all ages and immigrant communities in New York. A cupboard in the attic held hundreds of letters, neatly folded back again into their first envelopes. “My precious” started the ones penned by Austen’s mother, though Auntie Min dealt with her as “Ping” and pals as “My dear Alice”.

Violet Ward (remaining) and an mysterious/unidentified good friend sitting in entrance of Obvious Comfort and ease © Collection of the Alice Austen Property Museum

From treasure trove to museum

The Mandia family shortly moved into the house and their children found the letters. They used them to play mailman and doodled on some, but also safeguarded the letters for 40 decades, eventually bringing them back when the Dutch colonial farmhouse became the Alice Austen Property Museum—a New York Metropolis and countrywide landmark, and a national website of LGBTQ background. (The Mandias were being not alone in returning factors to the residence when it was restored in the 1980s there was an outpouring of donations from group associates who had acquired and saved Austen’s belongings, like negatives. The museum is continue to receiving points.)

Whilst Austen’s images have been studied since her death in 1952, her trove of letters relationship between 1883 and 1898 (when she was aged 17 to 32, making the photographs for which she is now best recognized) has remained relatively untouched. “Alice is super beneath-investigated,” states Victoria Munro, the director of the Alice Austen Home Museum, who labored with scholar Pamela Bannos to investigate this correspondence. A podcast known as My Expensive Alice, produced this autumn, is the outcome of their collaboration and narrates a selection of letters together with freshly investigated history facts. “The letter collection reveals so significantly about her social interactions,” Munro states, “and also her experienced ambitions, photographically.”

The Covid-19 pandemic gave the museum a time period of pause to target on its collection, and Bannos, a Northwestern College professor who wrote the to start with biography of the photographer Vivian Maier, used a great deal of the past two decades transcribing and studying these missives from residence. “We hardly ever hear Alice Austen’s voice,” Bannos claims, as the letters are all to the photographer. “But we discover about her and the culture of the periods by the correspondents, who are mostly girls.”

Trude and I, Small Skirts. Alice Austen 1891. © collection of Historic Richmond Town.

An epistolary ensemble

The podcast focuses on 6 characters, which includes a curmudgeonly gentleman named Henry Gilman who courted Austen, her childhood pal Julia Martin, and Daisy Elliott—a gymnast and achievable adore interest who wrote Austen passionate letters whilst biking throughout the Swiss Alps.

It’s definitely a various image of what is usually offered as the norm for Victorian gals

Pamela Bannos, pictures scholar

“Her circle of friends was genuinely phenomenal,” Munro states. “They ended up women of all ages concerned with innovations and patents, and it is seriously a various image of what is often introduced as the norm for Victorian females. It’s been critical to analyze these letters to have an understanding of far more about these interactions, and also more about what was happening potentially within Alice’s appreciate lifestyle just before she achieved her lifestyle husband or wife, Gertrude Tate.” As the museum does not include a lot oral historical past, Munro envisions this podcast as an accessible and entertraining sort of major source.

The envelopes that guarded these letters are also aspect of the podcast. Considering the fact that they were being postmarked equally at the originating article workplace and on arrival at the local Staten Island branch, Bannos could match the dates of Austen’s biography with when these letters were being delivered to her mailbox. Bannos gathered, for occasion, that Austen was absent in the Catskills meeting Tate for the initial time when Elliott’s final 6 emotional letters were piling up at household.

“I’m trying to explain to her story as a result of the voices of the folks who are conversing to her, in these letters that have wound up back again at the place wherever they despatched them,” Bannos states. “And reconstructing this narrative wherever we learn items about her that no person has ever accessed just before. There is a great deal of evidence remaining to unbury, to inform the stories that have not been told in advance of.”