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American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
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Photography as Art Form and Document

On the other side of the cultural spectrum of visual production from that cultivated in the salons of Paris is a more democratic art form, photography. This new art form permanently transformed lesbian representation.

The introduction in 1888 of the Kodak box camera revolutionized photography. By having ready access to inexpensive cameras, marginalized communities and their members were able to validate their lives and existences by permanently putting a face to them. The box camera manufacturers began heavily marketing the medium to women, touting the new camera as so easy to operate that even a woman could use them.

Nowhere was amateur photography more embraced than in the United States, a country in love with picturing itself and in need of instant histories to validate its relative youth.

The significance of photography as a documentary tool emerged in the early twentieth century, especially for gay men and lesbians. Anonymous photographs of men and women in loving embraces occasionally appear in archives or antique shops as silent testimonies to lives lived largely in secret.

Some gay and lesbian photographers focused on the world outside, leaving their own lives shadowed in mystery and subject to speculation. Others, however, openly documented their worlds, leaving an important legacy of "proof" where little else survives.

Little known nineteenth-century lesbian pioneers such as photographer Emma Jane Gay (1830-1919), who photographed Native Americans in Idaho, and Edith S. Watson (1861-1943), who photographed primarily in Canada, paved the way for later, more celebrated practitioners, such as Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) and Alice Austen (née Munn) (1866-1952).

Frances Benjamin Johnston, born in West Virginia and raised in a socially prominent family in Washington, D.C., had a privileged introduction to photography. She studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, and received her first camera as a gift from George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera.

Johnston worked as a freelance photojournalist and opened a studio in Washington in 1895, where as official White House photographer she documented the administrations of Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley (whom she photographed seconds before his assassination), Theodore Roosevelt, and William H. Taft.

Johnston also photographed Natalie Barney. Her famous self-portrait (ca 1896) seated with her skirt pulled up, crossed legs exposed, smoking a cigarette and grasping a beer stein was her radical take on the concept of the "New Woman" being touted in contemporary literature.

She became a vocal advocate for women in photography. In 1897 The Ladies Home Journal published Johnston's article "What a Woman Can Do With a Camera," and she served as curator at the Paris Exposition of 1900 of an exhibition of photographs by twenty-eight women photographers.

Johnston's one-time business partner and presumed lover, Mattie Edwards Hewitt (d. 1956), was a successful freelance home and garden photographer. In 1913 she and Johnston opened a studio together in New York, and in the 1920s they photographed New York architecture together. Johnston continued to photograph until her death in New Orleans at age eighty-eight. The details of Hewitt's later career are unknown.

Alice Austen, another daughter of privilege, had a very different but no less significant career as a photographer. A native of Staten Island, New York, Austen received her first camera at age ten. For more than fifty years Austen photographed primarily her family and circle of friends in and around Staten Island, amassing more than 9,000 negatives of her work. Austen met teacher Gertrude Amelia Tate in 1899 but Tate did not move in with Austen until 1917; theirs was a fifty-five-year relationship.

Austen was the first lesbian photographer honestly to depict lesbian lifestyles in her work. She photographed herself and her friends (called "the Darned Club" because they excluded men) smoking, bicycling, dressed as men, and in loving embraces. The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out Austen's fortune, but she and Tate were able to support themselves until 1945. Poverty then caused them to separate; Tate went to live with her sister and Austen ended up at the Staten Island Farm Colony (poorhouse), where she was rediscovered. Sales of her work allowed her to move to a nursing home.

Clear Comfort, the Alice Austen House and Museum, is now open to the public. It has been restored and maintains the photographer's archives. Although Austen and Tate lived their lives rather openly, there have been attempts to force them into the closet posthumously. Barbara Hammer's 1998 documentary, The Female Closet focuses in part on Austen's life and discusses the Austen House board's refusal to allow scholars to use the collection in order to study her sexuality.

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