This week, we’ll feature an American Photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn – I’ve known some of his portrait works and even though I personally might find it very pictoralistic at times, there is such an amazing quality to them that they deserve to be shown.
Alvin Langdon Coburn was born on June 11th 1882, in Boston, Massachusetts, to a middle-class family. His father died when Alvin was seven. After that he was raised solely by his mother, Fannie. She remained the primary influence in his early life, even though she remarried when he was a teenager.
In 1890 Coburn receieved his first camera, a 4 x 5 Kodak camera. He immediately fell in love with it, and within a few years he had developed a remarkable talent for both visual composition and technical proficiency in the darkroom. When he was sixteen years old, in 1898, he met his cousin F. Holland Day. Day recognized Coburn’s talent and both mentored him and encouraged him to take up photography as a career.
At the end of 1899 his mother and he moved to London, where they met up with Day. Day had been invited by the Royal Photographic Society to select prints from the best American photographers for an exhibition in London. He brought more than a hundred photographs with him, including nine by Coburn – who at this time was only 17 years old. He travelled to France to study with Edward Steichen and Robert Demachy, and to New York to work with Gertrude Kasebier. Here he became friends 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.
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. His work was published in Stieglitz’ Camera Work multiple times and he was given a one-man show at the Camera Club of New York.
By 1907 Coburn was so well established in his career that Shaw called him “the greatest photographer in the world,” although he was only 24 years old at the time.He continued his success by having a one-man show at Stieglitz’s prestigious Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York and by organizing an international exhibition of photography at the New English Art Galleries in London.
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.
While in New York he met and married Edith Wightman Clement of Boston on October 11, 1912. They would move and settle in Britain permanently.
Coburn continued to build his fame by publishing what would become his most famous book, Men of Mark, in 1913. The book featured 33 gravure prints of important European and American authors, artists and statesmen, including Henri Matisse, Henry James, Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Yeats. In the preface to the book, he says:
“To make satisfactory photographs of persons it is necessary for me to like them, to admire them, or at least to be interested in them. It is rather curious and difficult to exactly explain, but if I dislike my subject it is sure to come out in the resulting portrait . I had thought of using ‘Men of Genius’ as the title for this book, but Arnold Bennett objected seriously, saying, very modestly, that he did not consider himself a man of genius, but merely a working author, and absolutely refusing to join the throng unless I changed it, so I told him that if he would give me a better one I would use it. ‘Men of Mark’ is his alternative.”
In Britain, he became involved in the short-lived Vorticism movement. 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. He made only about 18 different Vortographs, taken over a period of just one month, yet they remain among the most striking images in early 20th century photography.
From 1918 he dedicated himself to freemasonry, taking photographs only when on holiday; 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. By 1930 Coburn had lost almost all interest in photography. He decided that his past was of little use to him now, and over the summer he destroyed nearly 15,000 glass and film negatives – nearly his entire life’s output. This same year he donated his extensive collection of contemporary and historical photographs to the Royal Photographic Society.
Coburn died in his home in North Wales on November 23, 1966.