Coburn, Alvin Langdon

British-American (1882-1966)


Alvin Langdon Coburn was steered toward a career in photography at an early age by his mother. At age 8, she sent him to vacation with his uncles in LA, who gave him his first Kodak camera. At 16, she set up interactions with F. Holland Day, a photographer cousin with an international following. Day encouraged Coburn, even including some of the youth’s images in a London show featuring America’s best photographers. Coburn gained attention and – by 1901 – was studying with Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, both who found his mother to be somewhat overbearing. Soon after, Coburn gained a reputation as a skilled portraitist throughout London; he had several famous literary subjects and one of his most famous shots is of George Bernard Shaw, posing nude as Rodin’s The Thinker.

Coburn’s most significant contributions to the world of photography occurred from 1910-1920. Traveling back and forth between the US and England and heavily influenced by the painterly style of the pictorialists, Coburn began taking pictures from elevated viewpoints, capturing scope and panorama previously unseen. Around the same time, Coburn also met Ezra Pound, who introduced him to the Vorticism movement, which involved using mirrors to fracture images. Coburn made a portrait of Pound, using overlapping images of different sizes, and then began to create completely abstract pieces – some of the first totally non-representative photographs ever made. These were not received well, but by this time, Coburn’s interest in photography was waning. In 1916, via fellow photographer George Davision, Coburn had become involved with mysticism and theosophy. He became increasingly obsessed with the study of the supernatural until – in 1930 – he renounced his previous profession, destroying 15,000 negatives, almost his entire life’s output.