Alvin Langdon Coburn

(1882—1966) photographer and mystic

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Photographer. His images of the modern city evolved from moody evocations to encounters of a dramatic force rarely encountered among pictorial photographers. He also made a specialty of portraying writers and artists with sympathy and insight, often seeming to capture the struggles of their inner creative lives. In 1916 and 1917, while associating in London with poet Ezra Pound, painter Wyndham Lewis, and other modernists known as vorticists, he made the first nonobjective art photographs, which he called “Vortographs.” Born in Boston, he started taking photographs as a child. After meeting his distant cousin F. Holland Day in 1898, the two sailed to London together the following year. A few months after his return, in 1902 Coburn established a studio in New York. There he met Alfred Stieglitz, joined the Photo-Secession, and published his photographs in Camera Work. He also worked in Gertrude Käsebier's studio, where he absorbed portrait techniques that he soon put to good use on his own. In the summers of 1902 and the following year, he worked with Arthur Wesley Dow, who increased his appreciation of Japanese design methods. After 1904 Coburn lived mostly in London, where he first gained acclaim for a long portrait series devoted to well-known writers, artists, and other creative luminaries. His subjects included Rodin, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, and H. G. Wells. Coburn visited the United States frequently until 1912 but did not return after that, preferring to remain in the United Kingdom. After World War I, his enthusiasm for photography dwindled as he developed interests in mysticism and the occult. By 1932, when he became a British subject, he had virtually stopped photographing. Following an initial visit in 1916, he built a home in Harlech, on the northwest shore of Wales, and eventually resided there year-round. In 1945 he moved permanently to Rhos-on-Sea, near the town of Colwyn Bay on the north coast of Wales.

Coburn produced his most stunning studies of modern metropolitan life in the years before his final expatriation. Toward the close of this period, he numbered among the first photographers to exploit peculiar camera angles. For “The Octopus” (1912), he found a graphic pattern of light and dark by pointing his camera almost straight down at a park, where paths suggest an “octopus” etched in snow-covered ground. The visual dynamism of such images prefigures the brittle abstractions of unstable forms that he produced as part of the vorticist movement. For these, he photographed through a kaleidoscopic arrangement of mirrors to create fragmented, radically cubistic images. Coburn's printing techniques enhanced the richly expressive quality of his compositions. He often combined the gum bichromate method with platinum and sometimes printed on colored papers. He also demonstrated unusual proficiency in use of the photogravure process. Although he rejected the common pictorialist practice of manipulating negatives, he regularly used a soft-focus lens that obscured detail and contributed to the primacy of broad masses in his images. In addition to more than a dozen literary works illustrated with Coburn's photographs, several publications explicitly showcasing his images often include his own texts. Views prevail in London (1909), New York (1911), Moor Park, Rickmansworth (1915), and The Book of Harlech (1920). He collected portraits in Men of Mark (1913) and More Men of Mark (1922). Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer: An Autobiography, edited by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, appeared in 1966.


Subjects: Art.

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