Richard Meyer, Quarantined: Alice Austen and the Secret History of American Art

On May 9th at Stanford, a lecture by Richard Meyer: “Quarantined: Alice Austen and the Secret History of American Art.”


The study of modern American art has typically focused on artworks that were exhibited or published in their contemporary moment or sometime shortly thereafter.   This focus largely excludes private, underground, and subcultural materials as well as vast expanses of art and photography produced outside the context of the professional art world. By attending to the amateur photographer Alice Austen (1866-1952) and to pictures that were little known or shown at the time of their making, Richard Meyer’s talk argues for an alternative approach to American art and visual culture.  While living on Staten Island at the turn of the twentieth century, Austen frequently photographed herself with female friends and companions, sometimes masked or cross-dressed, often embracing or otherwise engaged in physical affection.  Produced for private purposes in the 1890s, the photographs were rediscovered and published in Life magazine (among other places) in the early 1950s, reclaimed in the 1970s under the banner of lesbian feminism, and reworked, most recently, by queer artists such as Nina Levitt in Toronto and Henrik Olesen in Berlin. 

This talk traces the different interpretive possibilities and descriptive languages that Austen’s pictures have attracted over the last 120 years. In doing so, it situates the photographer’s self-portraits with female friends alongside two other bodies of her work:  a series of photographs of quarantined immigrants and disinfection equipment on Ellis Island taken over a period of ten years (1896-1906) and a portfolio of photogravures of workers on the streets of Manhattan titled Street Types of New York City (1896).  By placing questions of female homoeroticism in dialogue with those of migration, quarantine, and labor, Meyer offers an expanded view of Austen’s photographic practice and of what might be called the queer afterlife of her images. The talk concludes with a reflection upon the broader field of twentieth-century American art as seen through the histories of both photography and feminism in the United States.