Alvin Langdon Coburn
Biography | Bibliography
Alvin Langdon Coburn (June 11, 1882 – November 23, 1966) was an early 20th-century photographer who became a key figure in the development of American pictorialism. He became the first major photographer to emphasize the visual potential of elevated viewpoints and later made some of the first completely abstract photographs.
Coburn’s prints at the Royal Photographic Society attracted the attention of another important photographer, Frederick H. Evans. Evans was one of the founders of the Linked Ring, an association of artistic photographers which was considered at that time to be the highest authority for photographic aesthetics. In the summer of 1900 Coburn was invited to exhibit with them, which elevated him to the ranks of some of the most elite photographers of the day.
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. Alvin Langdon 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.
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, Alvin Langdon Coburn: Photographer, An Autobiography, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1978.
Weston J. Naef, The Art of Seeing: Photographs from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.
Pam Roberts, Alvin Langdon Coburn 1882-1966, Rochester, NY: 31 Studio, Gloucester and George Eastman House, 2002.
Alfred Stieglitz, Alfred Stieglitz: Camera Work: The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917, Koln, Germany: Taschen Books, 1997.
Karl Steinorth, Nancy Newhall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1900-1924, Zurich: Edition Stemmle, 1998.
Mike Weaver, Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer, 1882-1966, Beyond the Craft, New York: Aperture, 1986.