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Archive for the ‘photographers’ Category

“The Larky Life”

S.I. Historical Society

Staten Island, N.Y.

Alice Austen home

“Clear Comfort”

2 Hylan Boulevard

When photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952) lived there, Staten Island was a quiet, bucolic, upper-middle-class suburb of picturesque “cottages.” The Austen family home, Clear Comfort, was a 17th-century Dutch farmhouse purchased by Austen’s grandfather in 1844 and renovated and added on to over the years. When Austen’s father abandoned them, she and her mother came to live at Clear Comfort, where Alice was surrounded by a family of supportive relatives, including an uncle who presented her with her first camera when she was 10 years old. One of the country’s earliest female photographers, Austen was also the first woman to take her camera into the streets of New York City, producing an invaluable record of life at the turn of the 20th century. Her earliest documentary photographs predate those of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, whose work is now renowned while that of the gifted Austen, who died in obscurity, is largely forgotten.

Austen frequently focused her camera on the upper-class world she knew best, recording what she referred to as “the larky life” – tennis matches, bicycling, swimming, amateur theatrics, auto races. But her subjects also included the poor of lower Manhattan – street vendors, immigrants in Battery Park, shoeshine boys, ragpickers – who were far removed from her comfortable life. Austen took photographs almost every day, at a time when cameras and photographic equipment were heavy and bulky and glass plates cost about two dollars each. During her lifetime, she produced about 9,000 photographs, and the extant glass plates and negatives are today part of the collection of the Staten Island Historical Society.

Austen shared more than half of her life with an intimate companion, Gertrude Tate, who came to live with her at Clear Comfort in 1917. Not surprisingly, the curators at the historic house steer away from “the L word.” Visitors at Clear Comfort view an introductory video that labels Austen “a personality” who led “an unconventional lifestyle” – code words that attempt to explain why, as the video puts it, “Alice Austen was never to marry.”

Austen’s home is a National Historic Landmark. The first floor is open to the public, but only one room, the downstairs parlor, looks much as it would have in Alice’s time. As her finances dwindled after the Crash of 1929, Austen began selling furniture and art objects to New York museums, and some of these have been retrieved for exhibit at Clear Comfort. Fortunately, Austen, for posterity, left a complete record of both the interior and the exterior of the house, which made the restoration process much easier.

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mountaingrove2-m

Sunny Valley, Ore.

Rootworks
2000 King Mountain Trail

Southern Oregon has a rich history of lesbian and gay back-to-the-land projects. One lesbian separatist community, Rootworks, was established in the 1970s by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, when both women were in their 50s. “The philosophy was that we would live without men, separate from the patriarchal world,” Ruth told me in the late ’90s. “That is still pretty much the idea.” (The photo above was taken by Ruth at the commune in the 1970s.)

At Rootworks, there were originally only two houses – the Moonhouse and the Kitchen cabin. In the years that followed the founding, Ruth and Jean added the Sunhouse, a barn (called “Natalie Barney”), and the All Purpose crafts cabin. In the barn is a study and a feminist library. From 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean also published the magazine WomanSpirit from an office in the barn, and The Blatant Image, a feminist magazine about photography, was published there from 1981 to 1983; back issues of both are stored in the barn.

Ruth has credited WomanSpirit with bringing a lot of women to the southern Oregon region, by encouraging their creativity and spirituality. Though the magazine folded, Jean said, “the main elements of WomanSpirit are still being lived in the community – feminism, spirituality, all forms of creativity, sisterhood, nature, art, music, dance, literature, healing and personal development.”

Gardens that are nestled around some of the Rootworks buildings are filled with vegetables, beans, and berries. Solar energy provides heat and hot water and also powers the community’s lights. Ruth noted that it’s “not easy in the winter, and that’s when women usually leave.”

In 2008, Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Lambda Book Report:

Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s back-to-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together – and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another – writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks…The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon.”

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Abbott

New York, N.Y.

Berenice Abbott studio
50 Commerce Street

Photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is probably best known for her portraits of artists and writers in the 1920s expatriate community in Paris. Born in Ohio, she left the Midwest at age 22 to study in New York, Berlin, and Paris. While in Paris, she was assistant to the celebrated Man Ray, from 1923 to 1925. She later set out to do her own photographic portraits of such subjects as Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and James Joyce.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and began a visual chronicle of the city. For years, she lived and worked here on one of the most charming streets in Greenwich Village, above a restaurant called The Blue Mill Tavern, which is still there.

Much of the city’s old architecture was scheduled for demolition, and Abbott wanted to capture it on film before it disappeared. Her important volume, Changing New York (1937), recorded the shifting cityscape before the advent of World War II.

In the years after the war, Abbott became fascinated with new technology, particularly with using photographs to illustrate the laws of physics. Much of her later work was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Though she never openly identified as gay, Abbott had several intimate relationships with women during her life. In the early 1920s, she was lovers with Thelma Wood, whom Abbott introduced to writer Djuna Barnes (Nightwood). Wood and Barnes subsequently had a stormy, alcohol-driven love affair. Barnes once commented: “I gave Berenice the extra ‘e’ in her name, and she gave me Thelma. I don’t know who made out better.”

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