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Alvin Langdon Coburn: A Man of Mark and Mystery

Alvin Langdon Coburn, a master of Pictorialist and modernist photography, has been less widely known than he deserves, but a comprehensive traveling retrospective aims to change that.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Station Roofs

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Station Roofs, Pittsburgh, 1910, gelatin silver print, printed circa 1958.

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The photographic career of Alvin Langdon Coburn appears before our eyes like a brief time exposure through a fast lens. The shutter opens, showing a decade and a half of brilliant achievement and equally brilliant fame, and then snaps shut again as the artist stages his own disappearance from the art world. From the first years of the 20th century until the end of World War I, Coburn made some of the most innovative photographs of the era—a transitional time when late 19th-century Pictorialism was yielding to modernism. (Coburn, who always had one eye on the history of his medium and the other on its future, was comfortable with both approaches and produced a body of work that in many ways unified them.) Not only that, he was a public figure in London, a leader and propagandist for the new photography who gathered a circle of disciples around him even though he was only in his twenties. Coburn was also in demand as a celebrity portraitist—cultural luminaries including George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Auguste Rodin, and Igor Stravinsky trooped through his studio, glad to let this young émigré from Boston have his way with their likenesses. He eventually compiled the results and published them in a book titled Men of Mark (1913).

Coburn was very much a man of mark himself back then, but for a variety of reasons—beginning with, but not limited to, his vanishing act, about which more later—he has been overshadowed by his peers Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. Today his name is little known outside the tight circle of vintage photography enthusiasts, though some of his images have been fixed in the public mind via their use as illustrations on book covers. However, the time is ripe for a Coburn revival, and a major exhibition is poised to bring his name back to the prominence it deserves, revealing the full scope of his work through unprecedented loans. Organized by the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid, Spain, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., “Alvin Langdon Coburn,” debuted in Madrid last winter and will be up at Eastman House from September 19 through January 24. It brings together, for the first time, photographs from Coburn’s vast personal collection, which he donated to Eastman House in 1962, four years before his death; another group that he gave to the Royal Photographic Society; photographs in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and a collection of works principally acquired from the artist’s godfamily and owned by Janet Lehr, a private dealer in New York. (This collection, which includes some striking paintings, was exhibited in Madrid but will not be in the American version of the show. It is, however, represented in the comprehensive, beautifully printed catalogue, which also contains a valuable long essay by exhibition curator Pamela Glasson Roberts.)

No scholarly or technical study is necessary to experience the uniqueness and power of Coburn’s photographs, but it may not be immediately clear, without some historical background, just how far ahead of their time they were. Take, for example, The Octopus, Madison Square Park. This photograph enters the realm of abstraction without in any way forsaking naturalistic representation. Instead of manipulating the image, Coburn relies on an unusual vantage point and composition—he looks down on the snow-covered park and its radiating footpaths from the window of a tall building across the street. This was made in 1909, a decade before avant-garde Soviet photographer Alexander Rodchenko perched on Moscow’s balconies and rooftops to get a new view of the new Russia. And the way Coburn makes the park—familiar terrain traversed by millions every year—resemble a tentacled being with a life of its own anticipates Surrealism by more than a decade, as does the inclusion of the slightly eerie shadow of the Metropolitan Life building, which conspired with the photographer to fall across the left side of the

In The Bridge, Venice (1905), space is flattened out—a key modernist tactic in many media—and the lone figure mounting the stairs is overwhelmed by the water beneath, which takes up most of the frame and shimmers with abstract, possibly non-Euclidean geometries. The Great Temple, Grand Canyon (circa 1911), one of Coburn’s series of wilderness landscapes, rather than prefiguring the vast vistas of Ansel Adams, concentrates on the opportunities in the canyon’s pitted stone surfaces, again compressing the space and making the eye wonder whether it is looking at natural erosion or some kind of strange script incised in the rock.

Many of Coburn’s photographs, however, especially those made before 1917, are strongly redolent of Pictorialism, a school of photography that has been pretty consistently out of favor since its eclipse around 1920. The fact that Pictorialism has been used so often as a swear word makes it difficult to define precisely, but at a minimum, it can be said that it was an attempt to gain acceptance for photography as a valid medium for fine art at a time when it was being seen as a whiz-bang mechanical marvel useful mainly for making records of things, people, and events. If the art world was uncomfortable with the fact that photographs were machine-made, well then, the photographers would emphasize the touch of the hand, using complex processes to tone prints and manipulate their textures. To subvert glaring realism, Pictorialist photographers turned to so-called “soft-focus” lenses, blurring the outlines of objects and putting haloes on light sources.

At their worst, Pictorialist tactics tended to make photographs look like second-rate paintings or etchings, causing the medium to be untrue to itself. But at its best, they could be a way of stretching the limits of the camera, breaking away from slavish adherence to reportorial accuracy, and simply creating beautiful objects—and in today’s world of digital images it is easy to forget that photographs are objects. The proportions of eye, hand, and machine can vary, but all three need to be present to make a photograph, a fact of which Coburn was acutely conscious. His Pictorialist-type pictures are almost always in perfect taste, using the toolbox of special effects to convey inner perceptions. In photographs like the blue-toned Waterloo Bridge, London (1904), the tri-toned Place de la Concorde, Paris (circa 1904), The Flat-Iron Building (1910–11), or Fountain Court, The Temple, London (1907), Coburn takes us into a visionary world in which we see, simultaneously, things and the emotions they engender. In The Tunnel Builders (1907), which depicts workmen in silhouette engulfed in what looks like steam, he merges Pictorialism with modernism’s enthusiasm for industry, endowing these sandhogs with heroic dignity.

Some of the reasons Coburn has somewhat fallen through the cracks of photo-history have to do with his background and with the way the photography art world was organized at the beginning of the 20th century. Although he lived on into the Pop Art era, Coburn was born in the Victorian—or at least its American equivalent—in 1882, in ultraconservative Boston. His father was well off, a partner in a garment manufacturing business, but he died suddenly, when Alvin was nine. The boy and his mother, who were left with plenty of money, went to live with relatives in California, where an uncle gave him his first camera, a 4 x 5 inch Kodak. Coburn soon mastered the device and began spending long hours in the darkroom practicing printing techniques. His other ruling boyhood passion was stage magic, which he credited with giving him the manual dexterity needed for operating complex photographic equipment quickly under pressure. One can also detect a love of mystification and illusion in the young magician, qualities that stayed with Coburn for his entire photographic and post-photographic life.

His introduction to the artistic side of photography took place in and around Boston, where he and his mother had returned in 1893. It so happened that Coburn’s cousin F. Holland Day, who lived in nearby Norwood, Mass., was a great photographer with considerable importance in the emerging avant-garde scene, as well as a fine-art book publisher and general Mauve Decade decadent. In Day, young Coburn found a role model and mentor who taught him literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and composition, as
well as showing him that one could live a life uncompromisingly devoted to the arts—provided, of course, that one had enough inherited wealth, as both Day and Coburn did.

But in other ways, Day was a bad choice of role model, in that he was a divisive figure and not the most effective organizer or publicist for his own cause. In 1900, his publishing business having just folded, Day was pulling together a major exhibition, “The New School of American Photography,” which he planned to show in London under the auspices of The Linked Ring, a secessionist group that broke off from the conservative Royal Photographic Society. Before the show could launch, Stieglitz, who was a member of The Linked Ring, told the British members not to accept Day’s show, claiming that it was unrepresentative of American photographic efforts. In a sense it was, in that it did not include Stieglitz’s work! The 375-photo exhibition ended up being mounted at the RPS, where it ran for about a month, but the damage had been done. Stieglitz, not Day, emerged as the leader of the American photography art world. Day, while a great artist, lacked the ability to rally people together under his banner, an ability that Stieglitz, no matter how abrasive he was, definitely had. Coburn did not fight with Stieglitz, but he did not become a member of the Stieglitz circle, a decision that doubtless caused him to receive less exposure in the U.S. and ultimately affected his standing for posterity.

Another way in which Day was a bad example for Coburn was that within a few years, disappointed that he could not lead a movement and depressed by the loss of much of his work in a fire, he withdrew from the photography world. In fact, he withdrew from the rest of the world, too, spending much of the last quarter century of his life in bed, occasionally receiving guests and hosting house-party dress-up weekends but doing little if any creative work. While Coburn’s activities in retirement were quite different from his older cousin’s, Day undoubtedly modeled the reclusive stance that the younger man later adopted.

But in 1900, nothing could have been farther from Coburn’s mind. He was excited and eager to conquer the London art world, having crossed the Atlantic in the company of his domineering mother and Day. Except for a few trips to the U.S. over the next several years—including the Grand Canyon expedition and period spent studying with the painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow—he would spend the rest of his long life in Great Britain, never returning to his homeland (another likely cause of his relative obscurity in later years). Coburn soon adopted a style of dress that recalled his fellow American aesthetic expat James McNeill Whistler, affecting a top hat, tails, and a cane and large jeweled rings on most of his fingers. Coburn was shy and averse to public speaking, but his drive and some kind of intangible magnetism allowed him to make a strong impression and push himself forward in the competitive photographic world.

His work began to be featured in specialist periodicals, and by mid-1906 he was ready to have a one-man show, which was held in Liverpool. True to form, he organized it himself, overseeing every detail. George Bernard Shaw wrote the catalogue essay. The show was a smashing success and launched the 23-year-old Coburn as a major figure on the English photographic scene. Soon he was accepting commissions for portraits, magazine work, and book illustration. One of his best efforts in that line was a suite of photographs for H.G. Wells’ collection of weird tales, The Door in the Wall, published in 1911 by Mitchell Kennerley. “Coburn is a man of whom much will be heard, if he does not kill himself meanwhile,” said an article in the Photographic Monthly for March 1906, referring to the photographer’s punishing work pace. Coburn also found time to go on a photographic tour across the European continent with Henry James, making pictures for a multi-volume edition of the author’s novels, teaching photography, writing critical essays, and even doing product endorsement—a 1914 ad for a soft-focus lens made by the Boston firm of Pinkham & Smith featured a lengthy blurb by Coburn.

Coburn’s photographic career prospered, and the extremely high prices he was able to charge for his work enriched him even further; while he certainly did not need the money, the high prices seemed to serve as some kind of validation of worth in his mind. Then in 1917, amid the turmoil of World War I, something changed. Coburn hit on an idea radical enough to leave even his admiring public behind—the Vortograph. This was his term for a photograph taken through a rotating three-prism device mounted in front of the camera’s lens. The result was completely abstract, a transformation of the external world into a set of geometric forms and light values. Coburn, always sensitive to the relationships between visual art and literature and music, was inspired to do this by Vorticism, a Futurist literary movement spearheaded by Ezra Pound, a friend and photographic subject of his.

Unfortunately, however, Pound failed to appreciate the Vortographs—even though he and Coburn had initially worked on them together—and wrote a brutal review that minimized their value and their connection to his movement: “Vortography stands below the other vorticist arts in that it is an art of the eye, not the eye and hand together.” The criticism rings particularly hollow because of Coburn’s longtime emphasis on the role of the hand, but it must have stung anyway. It must also have stung Coburn to hear Paul Strand heralded as the first photographer to make completely abstract images. Not only did Coburn get there first by several years, but Strand’s early abstractions were still based on “straight” photography of real scenes, while Coburn’s were made of pure light and shape, optically generated. “Why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?” wrote Coburn in 1916. “If it is not possible to be ‘modern’ with the newest of all the arts, we had better bury our black boxes.” The gallery-going public and the critics alike did not take up his challenge; they were simply puzzled rather than inspired by the Vortographs, and in the ensuing disappointment Coburn began his withdrawal from professional photography.

Perhaps he had said everything he had to say with photography, precociously packed a lifetime of experimentation and achievement into less than 20 years. Regardless, he had other interests that had been preoccupying his mind for some time, occult, mystical, and religious in nature. With his obliging wife, Edith, Coburn moved to Harlech, Wales, a country retreat befitting the life of contemplation he was planning for himself. He became a Freemason and eventually founded an esoteric group called the Universal Order. Until the mid-1950s, the Order and kindred studies took up most of his time and energy, but during a trip to Madeira, Portugal, he was inspired to start taking pictures again, this time with a small 35mm camera. (The Eastman House exhibition skips this period—except for one image—on the grounds that Coburn never made formal prints of his Madeira negatives and that modern prints would not truly convey whatever the artist may have had in mind.)

In the early 1960s, Coburn began to think seriously again about his photographic legacy, and in collaboration with the photographic historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, he produced a memoir that, while far from complete and accurate in its recollections, does place his life work in the context of his philosophical beliefs and personal history. It was very important to him to see the book finished, despite his failing health, and he got his wish: On November 11, 1966, Alvin Langdon Coburn Photographer: An Autobiography was published; 12 days later, its author died, with the book in his hands.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: August 2015

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