- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
As quickly as possible I had a great many more of her plates made into large prints and sold magazine stories about them successively to Life, Holiday, and other magazines. This money soon got the old lady out of the Farm Colony into a private nursing home. The newspapers picked up the story, and the broadcasters, and fame descended with its gentle balm on Alice Austen, at eighty-five, for the wonderful record she had made years before of a vanished age. She died peacefully the following spring, but her fame continues. A school has been named for her, a big New York ferryboat, and a society. The old Austen house, almost demolished, has been saved by this group and made into a museum. I find all this immensely satisfying and proof that the pursuit of old photographs can lead to strange rewards.
Rarely, however, do those rewards appear in so dramatic a form as my meeting with Alice Austen. For the most part the retrieving of old photographs is quiet, solitary work, dusty and unglamorous. With all the noisy claims upon it, it is perhaps not surprising that Congress is slow to make funds available for the preservation of our visual heritage. Yet we must press for those funds. Old pictures, alas, don’t vote, and those of us who do must speak for them.