Largely remembered as a great innovator, Alvin Langdon Coburn is an enigmatic figure in the history of photography. This issue investigates Coburn’s sources and his personal and artistic explorations. Unlike his nineteenth-century predecessors, Coburn never used photography as a representational medium; during his career he was a Secessionist, a Symbolist with strong mystical associations, and briefly a Vorticist responding to Cubo-Futurism.
Aperture gratefully acknowledges the loan of prints from the Coburn Archive of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House and the cooperation of the Eastman House staff: Robert Sobieszek, Director of Photographic Collections; David Wooters, Chief Archivist; Carolee Aber, Mariann Fulton, Heather Alberts, and Rachel Stuhlman.
Alvin Langdon Coburn was born in Boston in 1882 into a solid middle-class family, but his father, a shirt manufacturer, died when the boy was only seven. This appears to have resulted in a degree of insecurity combined with indulgence that bound him too closely to his ambitious mother.
One of the conditions of harmony in architecture, as in life, is to avoid the monotony of regularity and excessive repetition. Exact equality of division lacks mystery. A rhythm that may not be completely fathomed, a beauty that eludes the mind's grasp yet is manifestly of exquisite proportions, this is the secret of the marvellous power of the progression of the Golden-mean.—Alvin Langdon Coburn17
Symbols are of two kinds, Natural and Artificial. All the animals, plants, minerals, the orbs in space, day and night, sunrise and sunset, the very atmosphere itself and the myriad lives which exist in it are symbolical; they express, to the mind that can read them, the Thoughts of God "which the Demiurge hath written in the Worlds of Form."
Who has not stood on a street corner on a grey October evening, when the sudden opening of a cloud has bathed a familiar scene with an unwonted magic as the sun painted it with flames of gold? Those who look upon such a pageant and are glad are artists in their hearts.It is for the camera to make them so in very fact.—Alvin Langdon Coburn41
That which we come to know by means of science, we apply by means of art. Having extended our researches into the hidden mysteries of nature and science, we begin truly to qualify for mastership. Wisdom is the right application of knowledge; it is the marriage of science and art, the progeny of which are good, true and beautiful acts.—Alvin Langdon Coburn60
There is only one way in which symbols may be made truly living. One by one material things come to be known for what they are, beautiful symbols of still more beautiful Realities. One by one they are taken into the mind and their outward forms transcended until in the end only the Realities themselves are contemplated, and at last the soul comes to behold the One Reality face to face, and symbolism is overpassed.—Alvin Langdon Coburn70
A complete Coburn bibliography is available from George Eastman House. Abel, Juan C. "Editorial Comment — Alvin Langdon Coburn. " The Photographer, vol. 6, no. 151, March 19, 1907, p. 323. Allan, Sidney (Sadakichi Hartmann). "Alvin Langdon Coburn-Secession Portraiture."
1882 Born June 11, 1882, 134 East Springfield Street, Boston. 1887 Family moves to Dorchester, Massachusetts. 1889 Father, manufacturer of Coburn & Whitman shirts, dies. 1890 Visits maternal uncles in Los Angeles; they give him a 4x5-ineh Kodak.
“To the present day photographer the name of Pierre Dubreuil of Lille stands for one of the extremists of photography ... he is one of the three to whose influence and example the ‘New Photography’ is to be traced, the others being Malcolm Arbuthnot in England and Paul Strand in America.”
Photoportraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Preface by André Pieyre de Mandiargues. Published by Thames and Hudson Inc., New York, 1985. Lee Friedlander Portraits. Foreword by R.B. Kitaj. Published by New York Graphic Society; Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1985.
TOM JACOBSON was born in San Diego, California in 1948. He is a self-taught photographer, photo-historian, and collector. He has spent over seven years researching and collecting the work of Pierre Dubreuil. Currently he is working on a collection of Japanese photography of the 1920’s and 30’s.
All Coburn photographs courtesy of and permission from the Coburn Archive of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. P. 4 drawing by Edward Steichen, courtesy of Coburn Archive, Eastman House. P. 11 ink drawing by Sesshū, courtesy of Rizzoli International.