Marilyn “Mamie” Austin (1887-1949)
Kalamazoo’s Accidental Documentary Photographer
There are many times when people never get a chance to see the impact of their work. Kalamazoo photographer Mamie Austin is one of those individuals. Her images taken for the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Art Department in the late 1930s and early 1940s captured everyday life in this community illustrating how and where we worked and played.
Mamie’s father George Austin grew up on a farm but chose photography instead, finding employment at a studio in Watervliet in 1892 when Mamie was five. Searching for a new position eight years later, he moved his family to Kalamazoo where he became the proprietor of the Beebe Studio on S. Burdick Street. In a very short time, the studio became his where he concentrated mainly on portrait photography.
Starting in 1912, the city directories list Mamie initially as a clerk, then artist and later manager of her father’s studio until his death in 1923, when she becomes the sole owner, aided by two employees. The studio remained in business for at least eight more years but by 1934, was gone. During the Great Depression, portraits become a luxury rather than a necessity.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought needed employment through various programs for many government institutions, including public libraries. The Kalamazoo Public Library took advantage of this beginning in 1933 employing staff for clerical work, classes and book talks.
Mamie began to work at the Library in 1936 through the Works Progress Administration Women’s Program. Assigned to the Art Department, Mamie used her expertise to undertake such tasks as to color black and white glass plates, to photograph artifacts from the Kalamazoo Public Museum and to take photographs around Kalamazoo for classroom use. All the photographs were developed and mounted on 8 ½”x11” heavy dark construction paper and circulated through the Library’s Art Department. Unfortunately, there is no list or no negatives remaining for any of the images.
Explore the Mamie Austin Photograph Collection
Between 1936 and 1939, Mamie’s major focus seemed to be local industries. The Library annual reports do not indicate how many images she took during these years or at any time; however, 120 survive from the late 1930s. Seventy-five percent of these photographs are rare interior shots of many companies like the Gibson Guitar Factory, Kalamazoo Sled Company, Shakespeare, Fuller Manufacturing and the Grace Corset Company. The series she did at the Kalamazoo Stove Company illustrate her talent with composition and lighting.
Mamie continued taking photographs through 1940 and 1941. Of the seventy-seven images that exist from these two years, twenty are local parks like Milham and Crane and thirty-four are exteriors of local public and private schools. She also continued capturing images of several manufacturing firms.
All of these images are unique and cover a time where there are not many photographs of Kalamazoo in existence. Included with the schools and parks and businesses, are one of a kind images like the Infant Welfare Station at the intersection of Gull and Harrison, the Kalamazoo City Market located on Mills Street and the newly completed Douglass Community Center at Ransom and Pitcher.
By 1941, Mamie also became a permanent employee of the Kalamazoo Public Library as the Works Progress Administration ended. Even though Mamie did a variety of tasks for the Art Department, she spent a majority of her time showing films for students and for the public. Known as the “Movie Lady”, Mamie spent twelve years visiting a wide variety of local elementary schools in the city until the Kalamazoo Public Schools took over this service.
Mamie passed away in October of 1949. When the Library’s Audio-Visual Department, previously the Art Department, disbanded, her photographs were added to the Local History Room and digitized for people to enjoy for many years to come.
Written by Lynn Houghton, Regional History Curator, Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections, November 2017.