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Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882–1966)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American photographer, active also in Britain. He was greatly influenced by his mother, a keen amateur photographer, and began taking photographs at the age of eight. He travelled to England in 1899 with his mother and his cousin, F. Holland Day. Coburn developed substantial contacts in the photography world in New York and London, and in 1900 he took part in the New School of American Pictorial Photography exhibition (London, Royal Phot. Soc.), which Day organized. In 1902 he was elected a member of the Photo-Secession, founded by Alfred Stieglitz to raise the standards of pictorial photography. A year later he was elected a member of the Brotherhood of the Linked ring in Britain.

Some of Coburn’s most impressive photographs are portraits. He worked for a year in the studio of the leading New York portrait photographer Gertrude Käsebier and became friendly with George Bernard Shaw, who introduced him to a number of the most celebrated literary, artistic and political figures in Britain, many of whom, including Shaw, he photographed (for example see Gernsheim and Gernsheim, p. 13). Shaw also wrote the preface to the catalogue for the exhibition of Coburn’s work at the Royal Photographic Society, London, in 1906, and regarded Coburn and Edward Steichen as ‘the two greatest photographers in the world’. Coburn produced two books of portraits: Men of Mark (1913) and More Men of Mark (1922). As a photographer of cities and landscapes (1903–10), he concentrated on mood, striving for broad effects and atmosphere in his photographs rather than clear delineation of tones and sharp rendition of detail. He was influenced by the work of Japanese painters, which he referred to as the ‘style of simplification’. He considered simple things to be the most profound. Coburn produced two limited edition portfolios, London (1909) and New York (1910), in photogravure form, which he produced on his own printing press. He claimed that in his hands photogravure produced results that could be considered as original prints, and signed them accordingly. In 1908 he learnt from Steichen the refinements of the Autochrome colour process in New York, though on his return to London he himself claimed to be an innovator and pioneer of colour photography.

Between 1910 and 1911 Coburn spent an extended period in the wilder regions of California, photographing places of great natural beauty, including the Grand Canyon, AZ. Strong design featured in these photographs and in those taken from the top of New York’s skyscrapers, such as House of a Thousand Windows (1912; see Gernsheim and Gernsheim, p. 109), which was part of the series New York from its Pinnacles, exhibited later at Goupil Galleries, London (1913). He defended his right to manipulate photographic perspective to achieve interesting designs, as the Cubists had done in painting. He settled permanently in Britain in 1912 and became involved in Vorticism from its inception in 1914, though his continued interest in pictorial photography led him in 1915 to form the Pictorial Photographers of America with Gertrude Käsebier, Karl F. Struss and Clarence H. White. In 1916 he made a Vortoscope (a triangle of mirrors attached to the lens), with which he was able to take abstract photographs known as Vortographs, which he exhibited (together with a number of paintings) in London at the Camera Club in 1917. From 1918 he dedicated himself to freemasonry, taking photographs only when on holiday (as in 1947); he spent most of his time at his home in North Wales, where he derived great happiness from his study of freemasonry and spiritual subjects. He became a naturalized British citizen in 1932. A one-man exhibition of his work was held at the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1957 to celebrate his fifty years of membership, and his works continued to be exhibited long after his death.

Margaret Harker
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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