Alvin Langdon Coburn

(1882 - 1966) British (b. United States)


Alvin Langdon Coburn's work traces photography's transition from Pictorialism to modernism at the turn of the century. Born in Boston, he was given his first camera at the age of eight, but did not photograph seriously until he met F. Holland Day in 1898. Day encouraged Coburn to pursue photography and asked his help in preparing the exhibition The New School of American Pictorial Photography at London's Royal Photographic Society in 1900. Upon his return to New York, Coburn opened a photography studio and became involved with the artists and intellectuals surrounding Alfred Stieglitz, who invited him to be a founding member of the Photo-Secession and published his photographs in Camera Work. Coburn's affiliation with avant-garde photography was confirmed in Britain when he was elected to the Linked Ring Brotherhood, an association of Pictorialist photographers, in 1903. He was commissioned to do portraits of British literati for a London magazine and afterward traveled throughout Europe and the United States. In 1912 he took his last photographs in the United States, from the tops of New York City skyscrapers. He pointed the camera directly at the street, eliminating the horizon line and flattening perspective to emphasize abstraction. These photographs marked a distinct change in Coburn's style.
Coburn moved to London, where his concentration turned to abstraction. His close association with the Vorticists Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound inspired experiments that led to his construction of the Vortoscope in 1916. This device, consisting of a kaleidoscopic arrangement of mirrors, allowed him to produce what many considered the first entirely abstract photographs. In the 1920s, Coburn became increasingly interested in mysticism, and his photographic production waned significantly by 1924. He became a British citizen in 1932 and settled in northern Wales.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 212.
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