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Book Review: Alvin Langdon Coburn


Book Review Alvin Langdon Coburn Photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Alvin Langdon Coburn picked up the camera at age 8 and died holding the autobiography of his life in photography. In between those narrative bookends is a twenty year period at the turn of the twentieth century full of prodigious achievement and artistic zeal, in both his native America and adopted Britain.

Alvin Landon Coburn.
Fundacion Mapfre, 2015.
 
Alvin Langdon Coburn
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Alvin Langdon Coburn
Photographs by Alvin Coburn. Text by Anne Cartier-Bresson and Pamela Roberts.
FundaciĆ³n Mapfre, 2015. 296 pp., 8½x9¾".


Alvin Langdon Coburn picked up the camera at age 8 and died holding the autobiography of his life in photography. In between those narrative bookends is a twenty year period at the turn of the twentieth century full of prodigious achievement and artistic zeal, in both his native America and adopted Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, Coburn inserted himself and his talent into photography’s clubs and coteries, earning his place with a devotion to technique and a fresh vision, and no small measure of moxie. Beyond this period of practical mastery and avant-garde firsts, Coburn’s affiliations and aspirations changed, as a search for a more meaningful inner life altered his photographic practice, or marked its absence. Today, the largest collection of his work is at the George Eastman House, the result of the artist’s bequest in 1962. The Royal Photographic Society was recipient of another substantial gift from Coburn in 1930, now part of the collection of the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK. The exhibition this volume catalogues is the only one drawn from these two collections in over half a century. Now in a substantially larger pull, it aims to introduce Coburn’s work to a new generation and solidify his place in the canon of masters with its just-past run at FundaciĆ³n Mapfre and showing at George Eastman House in late 2015.

Alvin Landon CoburnFundacion Mapfre, 2015.

Coburn’s distant cousin Fred Holland Day taught him the basics and laid out a vision of a photographic career and a cultured life. They traveled to Europe together, where at age 17, Coburn made his Pictorialist debut in Day’s explosive exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. Subsequent connections with photographic elders and fellow rising stars cast Coburn as student and mentee, competitor and poacher, as he mastered and improved Pictorialism’s elaborate photographic processes and favored tropes. Like peers Edward Steichen and Max Weber, Coburn was both buoyed by and tethered to the grandiosity of Alfred Stieglitz. He was captivated by the Japanese aesthetic as adopted by Arthur Wesley Down and James McNeill Whistler, and their influence is seen in his views of Britain’s bridges and waterways, moods and monuments. Cutting his teeth in his home studio in Boston, Coburn made also portraits throughout his career. First prompted by a magazine assignment, he voraciously sought out subjects among his era’s celebrated authors and artists including George Bernard Shaw, Henry James and Auguste Rodin, situating himself in still other circles of influence and referral.

Alvin Landon CoburnFundacion Mapfre, 2015.
Alvin Landon CoburnFundacion Mapfre, 2015.

Coburn’s devotion to Pictorialism faded during his final stay in the United States from 1910-12. His well-known image The Octopus, from 1909 had begun his foray into abstraction and was revolutionary when he first exhibited it three years later. During travels in the American West, he further shaped his new vision, seeing in its landscapes a grand and mystical scope best explored in abstract form and pattern. In New York, he turned his experimentation to the urban landscape — working side by side with Weber and depicting the city’s new skyscrapers and skylines from an elevated and thoroughly modern point of view. Back in London, the new realities of World War I barred Coburn from roaming the streets with his camera or traveling abroad, so he turned to different modes of photography, including multiple exposure portraiture. His brief affiliation with the Vorticist movement resulted in his most nonrepresentational works to date. During the war, Coburn looked increasingly inward, searching for existential meaning during dark days. This was first a shift to painting and music, and then an immersion in societies and schools of thought that might expand his thinking, such as astrology, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and Druidism. In 1917, Coburn and his wife made their first visit to rural Wales, where they would eventually settle permanently. Here, Coburn’s spiritual pursuits led him from the bohemian cluster of artists and musicians assembled by photographer George Davidson to Arthur Edward Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an organization based in the tenets of Freemasonry. Eventually, they left the Fellowship behind in favor of joining the humanist group, The Universal Order.

Alvin Landon CoburnFundacion Mapfre, 2015.

Curator Pamela Glasson Roberts has crafted a convincing case here, in both superbly-reproduced photographs that speak well for themselves, and a densely packed biography full of ambition and achievement. She tells of Coburn as a singular force, captivated by a succession of trailblazers and charismatic leaders, absorbing their lessons and then making them his own. Coburn was decidedly a joiner — drawn first to the organized cause of Pictorialism, and all its camera clubs and photographic societies. Yet he also seemed to be impervious to entrenched loyalty or blind faith. In his later years, when the pull of the collective satisfied more spiritual needs, Coburn shifted from one fold or philosophy to the next, as he sought to give shape and sustenance to an inner life, and an artistic vision that ebbed and flowed. This is a captivating story of a photographic life and persuasive argument for Coburn’s distinction. It’s told not as a cartoon of artistic drive, or a glossed-over illustrated history, but with insightful scholarship that reanimates a rich body of work and makes fresh another era’s belief in photography’s power.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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