Akron Art Museum

photo by Richman Haire

Akron, OH / 330-376-9185



Alvin Langdon Coburn: Photographs 1900 - 1924


Alvin Langdon Coburn: Photographs 1900 - 1924 features 147 photographs spanning Alvin Langdon Coburn's entire career, presenting an unprecedented opportunity to view the development of a child prodigy who was one of the most brilliant turn-of-the-century photographers. This exhibition runs through November 28, 1999.

"Although Coburn's name is not a household word, it should be," declared Barbara Tannenbaum, Akron Art Museum's chief curator and head of public programs. "Coburn made exquisitely beautiful photographs which represent several important firsts in art photography. He helped initiate the change in photography from pictorialism, a style which imitated painting, to modernism, a style that consciously emphasized the unique visual qualities of the camera lens. Coburn freed photography from the shackles of representation when he made some of the first abstract photographs. And, he was the first photographer to exploit the expressive potential of the aerial view."

Well traveled, schooled and read, Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was the product of a world that inspired, promoted and cherished his talent. He was born in Boston to a family, successful in business, which encouraged him to follow his talents for the arts. Starting in photography at eight years old, Coburn was exhibiting by age 18 at London's Royal Photographic Society alongside the giants of the time including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. When he was 22 years old, Coburn became a member of the prestigious Photo Secession founded by Alfred Stieglitz.

The Photo Secession strived to have photography accepted as an art in its own right: each image would not be seen as a document or snapshot but as a singular object to be contemplated for the personal expression of the artist. Coburn's work was a perfect fit with the Photo Secessionists, famous for their landscapes, figure studies and portraits.

Part of the Photo Secession, a subgroup of the pictorialist movement that emphasized artificial, often romanticized pictorial qualities, Coburn was extremely adventuresome in applying pictorialism to themes as varied as portraits, cityscapes and industrial scenes. Coburn, a superb portraitist, photographed many of the notable figures of his time including Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse, George Bernard Shaw and Rodin.

Around 1912 Coburn's interest in pictorialism waned as he helped develop a more modern photographic style. Focused on the modern city, Coburn exchanged the soft focus of pictorialism for sharp, clear images and experiments with abstract compositional geometry. One of only a handful of turn-of-the-century photographers who concentrated on the metropolis, he helped shape the way the urban experience was depicted for almost half of the 20th century. His aerial views of New York City, which were inspired by his experience photographing the Grand Canyon in 1911, were made at least six years before the German and Russian photographers usually credited with this innovation.

In 1916, Coburn employed a kaleidoscope-like device to make some of the earliest abstract photographs. He dubbed these Vortographs after a contemporary British movement in painting and literature. These revolutionary images emphasize the pure form on the flat picture surface, discarding altogether the representational side of photography.

Coburn was also a master printer. He employed several difficult and unusual printing practices, including the rare gum-platinum process and the exacting photogravure. Photogravure is a photomechanical process for reproducing the appearance of a continuous range of tones in a photograph. Since he wanted as many people as possible to see his work, Coburn considered the photogravure as important as an original print.

Co-existing with his interest in modernity, however, Coburn had always had a strong interest in the spiritual. In 1924, he became involved with a British comparative religious group called the Universal Order, which combined Rosicrucianism, Druidism and Freemasonry. By 1931, he had virtually abandoned photography for the study of religion and the performance of good works. Coburn remained devoted to these activities until his death in 1966.

This exhibition was organized by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film with support from Kodak Kulturprogram, Kodak A. G. Its presentation in Akron is made possible by a generous gift from the Akron Community Foundation.


Ed.: See Alvin Langdon Coburn's Yosemite Series and Edinburgh Series from George Eastman House.

Read more about the Akron Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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