Alvin Langdon Coburn
(b. 11 January 1882; d. 23 November 1966)
Coburn was another outstanding photographer who has been not given the acclaim he deserves. He was born in Boston, moving to England as a young man. He started taking photographs at the tender age of eight (inspired by his cousin F. Holland Day), became a founding member of Photo-Secession and in 1903 was elected to the Linked Ring. At the age of twenty-five he had exhibited a one-man show at the Royal Photographic Society.
Coburn stressed the importance of learning the techniques of photography so that they became totally automatic, “leaving the mind free to devote itself to the really important matter: direct contact with what we wish to express.”
Coburn was also an accomplished portrait photographer, and in 1913 and 1922 produced a two-volume collection of photographs of celebrities, entitled “Men of Mark.” He has a characteristic style in his portraits. The writer George Bernard Shaw, who sat for Coburn, and who also had developed an interest in photography, described him as “one of the most accomplished and sensitive artist photographers…living.”
Coburn passionately believed in liberating photography from the notion that it is only artistic if it depicted reality, and he is perhaps best known for producing Vortographs, non-objective photographs of such items as a piece of wood or crystal, through an arrangement of mirrors, resulting in multiple images. In 1916 Coburn designed an item which consisted of three mirrors arranged like a kaleidoscope, which enabled multiple-image photographs to be taken. It was called a Vortoscope by the poet Ezra Pound,
The British Journal of Photography (16 February 1917) comments on Coburn’s fascination for his vortographs, and his assertion that the creating of these
“Was the most thrilling experience he had ever had in all the realms of photography. For over a quarter of a century he had been using a camera in one way or another, but never had he discovered a medium to compare with vortography for producing aesthetic excitement and enjoyment.”
Between 1903 -1909, his work appeared in three editions of Camera Work. Unfortunately Coburn lost himself in astrology and the occult, and his enthusiasm for photography waned somewhat after the First World War, though he again began taking photographs in the 1950s.
Thanks to the close friendship between Coburn and Dudley Johnston, Curator of the Royal Photographic Society’s Collection, the Society owns a considerable number of his fine works.