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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Alvin Langdon Coburn

Dates:  1882, 11 June - 1966, 23 November
Born:  US, MA, Boston
Died:  UK, North Wales, Colwyn Bay
Active:  Britain
 
  
By 1917, Coburn was a precursor of the Modernist movement in photography, having mastered, and improved, practically every form of photography available. For the first ten years of the twentieth century, he traveled between the USA and England and joined the ‘Photo-Secession‘ founded by Alfred Stieglitz and in 1903 the ‘Linked Ring‘ in Great Britain. He photographed notables such as Mark Twain, Yeats, Shaw and Matisse as well as New York, London, Paris, Edinburgh and Yosemite. Despite never giving up photography entirely, he retired to Wales and lived a contemplative, inner life, rather than a competitive outer one.
 
[With contributions by Pam Roberts]

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Alvin Langdon Coburn
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

 
  
Having begun to photograph at an early age, Coburn became the youngest major member of the Photo-Secession. He skillfully made rich gum-platinum prints and also was very accomplished at the photogravure process. He created photographic landscapes, city scenes, and portraits in both America and his adopted country of England. Late in life he pursued mysticism and the spiritual by joining cult groups such as the Druids and the Rosicrucians. Alvin Langdon Coburn was born on June 11, 1882, in Boston, where he later met his distant cousin F. Holland Day, who was already making pictorial photographs and who encouraged him to do the same. Coburn also studied with the New York portrait photographer Gertrude Käsebier and the painter/printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow, who imparted upon him the Japanese aesthetic of asymmetry and flat, open spaces.
 
Coburn began making frequent trips to Europe in 1899, where he took in the culture, met other creative photographers, and eventually exhibited regularly. In 1902, he opened a portrait studio on New York’s Fifth Avenue and a year later hung a one-person exhibition of his work at the Camera Club of New York. Stieglitz included twenty-six photogravures in Camera Work by Coburn, one of the best represented photographers, and gave him solo shows at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1907 and 1909. After the second of these exhibitions, Coburn moved to the Hammersmith section of London and set up two presses in his home studio in order to print his own photogravures.
 
Due to his interest in printing and publishing and his skill with the camera, Coburn’s imagery was widely used as illustrations in high-quality books. The Novels of Henry James (London, 1907-1909), for instance, included frontispieces by him in each of its twenty-four volumes. Coburn’s gravures illustrated The Door in the Wall (1911) by H. G. Wells, and were the features of his own publications London (1909), New York (1910), Men of Mark (1913), and More Men of Mark (1922).
 
Coburn collected work by other photographers and in 1915 used some of it in an exhibition he organized for the Albright Art Gallery (Buffalo, New York) called Old Masters of Photography that included Hill and Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and two other British photographers. Fifteen years later, he donated his collection to the Royal Photographic Society. In 1917, Coburn made an innovative series of modernist pictures termed "vortographs," that were abstract, cubist, and futuristic, inspired, in part, by his interaction with the poet Ezra Pound.
 
In 1930, Coburn left London for North Wales and two years later became a naturalized British subject. He was no longer photographing seriously at this time and in 1962 saw the largest solo show during his lifetime installed at Reading University. He died in North Wales on November 23, 1966, the year that his autobiography was published. 
  
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.
 
  

Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
A member of the Linked Ring (1903) and the Photo-Secession, Coburn helped connect the European and American pictorial movements. His early work, influenced by Whistler, was soft-focus. Published Men of Mark in 1913, a significant volume of artists and writers portraits. In The Octopus (1912), he moved toward modernism by making pure form the content of the image through his use of aerial perspective, eliminating unwanted detail, and banishing the familiar, inviting viewers to celebrate formalistic beauty rather than the photographic impulse to identify and name subjects. In 1917 Coburn made abstract portrait photographs called "vortographs" by using a mirrored prism in front of the lens to distort, flatten, multiply, and transform his subject into a two-dimensional form, thus articulating how a photograph could be both subjective and objective. 
  
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

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Alvin Langdon Coburn
The Copper Plate Press (Self-Portrait) 
1908
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Exhibitions on this website

20th century masters
ThumbnailAlvin Langdon Coburn: London 
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ThumbnailAlvin Langdon Coburn: New York 
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Thanks to Mark Katzman of the photogravure.com website for supplying the missing images.
 
  

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Supplemental information

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn
American, 1882-1966

A.L. Coburn was born in Boston in 1882 and began taking photographs at an early age. In 1899 he moved with his cousin F. Holland Day to England where he met and made contacts with many of the day's important photographers. The next year Day organized the New School of American Pictorial Photography exhibition in London, and Coburn took part. Back in the states in 1902, Coburn opened a studio in New York City. Also in this year he was elected to the Photo-Secession, Alfred Stieglitz's organization of leading pictorial photographers. Throughout the early 1900s many of Coburn's photographs were reproduced in Stieglitz's Camera Work magazine. After working at the Gertrude Kasebier studio for a year he was drawn back to England to photograph a variety of prominent people including Rodin, Henry James and George Bernard Shaw. While Coburn's earlier work was primarily pictorialist, he eventually moved to a much more abstract style.
 
Around 1930 he gave much of his collection of photographs to the Royal Photographic Society and destroyed 15,000 negatives. Towards the end of his career in the 1950s he took 300 photographs on a trip to the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal. Coburn died in Wales in 1966 and left everything to the George Eastman House in Rochester.
 
For more information, see Macmillan Biographical Encyclopedia of Photographic Artists & Innovators, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983.
 
[Contributed by Lee Gallery]

Alvin Langdon Coburn

Alvin Langdon Coburn was born into a middle-class family in Boston in 1882. His first camera was given to him by his uncles when he was eight years old. Thus began his venture into photography as a means of artistic expression In 1899 he moved with his mother to London and soon after had his first exhibition with the Linked Ring Brotherhood in 1900. The Linked Ring was an organization founded in 1892 by a group of photographers that included H.P. Robinson, George Davison, and H. H. H. Cameron, Julia Margaret Cameron's son. The three interlinked rings that were the symbol of the Brotherhood had Masonic overtones and most likely referred to the triadic virtues of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In 1901 Coburn studied in Paris with Steichen and Robert DeMachy. Returning to America in 1902, Coburn opened his own studio in New York. Here he studied with Gertrude Kasebier, the great Madonna figure in the history of photography. She probably encouraged his attendance at Arthur Wesley Dow's summer school in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which gave him the grounding in composition that was to underpin his own contribution to photography.
 
Between 1903-1909 many of Coburn's photogravures were published in Camera Work - the exquisite fine art photographic magazine that was edited and published by Alfred Stieglitz from 1903 -1917. In 1906 Coburn had a one-man show at the Royal Photographic Society in London. The show made Coburn well known in England and from that time he became a leading figure in the recognition of photography as a fine art. His photographs of men and cities were equally distinguished by his exploring originality of approach; he was one of the first to draw attention to the purely pictorial possibilities of patterns of nature seen under the microscope; and in 1917 he showed the first abstract photographs, which he called 'Vortographs' - from 'Vorticist', the term devised by Ezra Pound. In 1907 George Bernard Shaw considered the twenty-four year old Coburn the greatest photographer in the world. Coburn's sensibility was formed by the people around him that were at least a generation older that himself, artists who had direct links with Aestheticism (Maeterlinck and F. Holland Day), the Symbolist movement (Henry James Jr. and Arthur Symons) and the socialism of William Morris and Ford Madox Brown (Edward Carpenter and Frank Brangwyn).
 
The psychological/spiritual basis of Coburn's life was committed to hidden or ideal philosophies. However, it is possible to identify certain phases in his life as of special significance. The years 1900-1905 were his apprenticeship; 1905-10 was his Symbolist period, in which he made his great contribution to photography; 1916-23 - years that Coburn himself described as wasted - saw him in confusion, dabbling in astrology and the occult although the Vortographs were from this era and were extremely important in the development of formalism and modernism in photography. The years 1923-30 was the period when he became completely devoted to the life of the Universal Order, a comparative religious group that had begun in 1911 as the Hermetic Truth Society and the Order of Ancient Wisdom. The photographs Coburn made after 1930 were heavily informed by the abstract, and were similar to those produced by Minor White during much the same era.
 
[Contributed by the Alan Klotz Gallery, October 2007] 
  
 

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
 

Internet resources

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Alvin Langdon Coburn - Coburn Sampler 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
Alvin Langdon Coburn - Edinburgh Series 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
Alvin Langdon Coburn - Yosemite Series 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
  
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.113 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.108-109 
  
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.212 [Includes a well written short biography on Alvin Langdon Coburn with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Alvin Langdon Coburn.] 
  
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.454 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.112-113 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.244 
  
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn are included in this classic history.] 
  
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.62 [Analyzes a single photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.] 
  

Collections

Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 
  

 
In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Alvin Langdon Coburn was represented in 77 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
  
Library of Congress, Washington, USA 
  
Approximate number of records: ? 
Note: A single record may contain more than one photograph.
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Quotations

The wit and wisdom.

 
"It is my hope that photography may fall in line with all the other arts and with her infinite possibilities, do things strange and more fascinating than the most fantastic dreams."
 
  
 
  
 
  
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