Few people outside of New York may know about 19th-century photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952)but author/historian/Northwestern University professor Pamela Bannos wants to change that.
Bannos recently completed a podcast series about Austen, My Dear Alice, which she based on hundreds of letters now housed at the Alice Austen House museum in Staten Island, New York (Austen took more than 8,000 photographs over the course of her life). The letters were given to the museum 40 years after they were discovered by the family who had moved into the home Austen had been evicted from in 1945, when she was 79.
"I discovered the letters because I was invited to do a Vivian Maier talk at the Alice Austen House," Bannos said. (Maier was a 20th-century photographer who took thousands of photos, mainly of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.) "Christina Allegretti, who's still with the place, took me on a tour of the place and even showed me where they still had the darkroom [Austen] used. She didn't show me the letters, but I said, 'This is very interesting.'"
Bannos eventually was taken to the room where the letters were. "I didn't read them then. They let you take photos with your phone, however. They were behind mylar so there were reflections and there were boxes. This was in 2018 and I was still overwhelmed giving book talks, so I shelved it until the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, I had all these files and I transcribed the whole letter collection, which they didn't know I was doing.
"I'm always interested in uncovering history," Bannos said, noting she first became aware of Austen's work while living in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1980. "It's interesting that I do these obsessive projects. I wrote that Vivian Maier book, which was a whole other situation."
Austen's life was one full of peaks (finding the love of her life, Gertrude Tate), valleys (losing her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929) and travel, with excursions taking her to many places such as Chicago, where she visited the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
"She visited and photographed it," Bannos said. "There's been this urge to give her more credit as a photographer. She's not in the canon because she did this as a hobby and didn't really sell her work. But I discovered she sold photographs at this exposition."
And Austen definitely had her own style of photography, at least in terms of process. For example, at that exposition, "so many people went there and photographed it because photography was becoming more accessiblelittle pocket cameras and things. But she was shooting with glass plates and everything was a production. That was an arduous process."
When asked what surprised her about Austen, Bannos listed several items. "The surprise was, first, that she was selling her photographs," she said. "The fact that she was making money from the photographs was something that had not been focused on, historically speaking.
"I was more surprised by what I was learning about the culture of the time, and I was probably learning more about these women who were writing to her than [about] Alice herselfbut that was obviously the point. I was surprised by all these women who never got married and that there wasn't more talk about anything than everyday thingsexcept then Daisy [friend and gymnast Daisy Elliott] comes in and that there is such a thing as desire.
"What I liked was discovering the full picture as these letters are coming at her. Austen, like Vivian Maier, was a hoarderand that was really helpful. But I was surprised at how thoroughly I was able to put the story together. I was also surprised that this archive existed, and that it ended up at the house 40 years after she left. I was surprised to see handwriting all over from children. I was really enamored of the women who wrote to her; the personalities of those women became a lot clearer."
My Dear Alice helps bring Austen and the people who wrote the letters to lifeand makes things more engaging by using actors (students from Northwestern). Bannos admitted that she encountered many obstacles in putting the podcast together, ranging from casting to time management to her own voice changes.
"I auditioned all these Northwestern theater students; I got 30 auditions back," she said. "All the voices started sounding the same after a while, [but] I ended up picking people who sounded different from each other. And I was still writing the script while I was still recording it. And a friend of mine with a short attention span kept falling asleep while listening to the recordingsso I added more music and sound effects to bring it to life."
Of course, no discussion of Austen would be complete without discussing the queer aspects of her life, from being with Tate to the photos Austen took of her women friends, who often dressed in men's clothing for the images.
"I don't love that there are no letters from Gertrude from that period, but I love that there's a picture from the time that they met," said Bannos, who's part of the LGBTQ+ community herself. "I found the waterfall that's in the photograph."
And what did Bannos think Austen would make of contemporary photography? "I think [Austen] was very curious about people and making photographs," Bannos said. "She, like Vivian Maier, would be out in the street"but probably not using a cellphone.
To listen to the My Dear Alice podcast series and learn more about Austen, visit mydearalice.org/ .