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  Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer

Born into an upper-class Boston family on June 11, 1882, Alvin Langdon Coburn had an entitled upbringing, and after the death of his father in 1889, also had considerable wealth. A precocious child, by age 8, he was already a budding young photographer. Gifted with a 4 x 5" one-speed Kodak fitted with a catgut shutter, he proudly photographed a neighbor's dog, who promptly wagged his tail at the last minute, which resembled a fan to the young shutterbug. By age 15, Mr. Coburn was exhibiting his photographs at a Boston gallery, which resulted in an introduction to local photographer (and distant cousin) Fred Holland Day, who would become his professional mentor. While exhibiting his works at Mr. Day's New School of American Photography in London, Mr. Coburn became acquainted with fellow photographers Frederick H. Evans and Edward Steichen. Then, it was on to the Photo-Club de Paris, where introductions to pioneers Robert Demachy and Frank Eugene taught the young man the finer points of the gum printing process, which became his technique of choice.

Following his European sojourn, Mr. Coburn returned stateside in 1902 and opened a portrait gallery on Fifth Avenue, which became popular with Photo-Secessionist photographers Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Steiglitz. By age 21, he was a member of the Photo-Secession, England's Linked Ring Brotherhood, and was featured in Steiglitz's Camera Work publication. The style that became his trademark developed over time, a delicate balance of darkness and light. Artists and writers clamored to sit for Mr. Coburn, and George Bernard Shaw became a popular subject, even posing nude for an interpretation of Rodin's "The Thinker." His growing collection of artist and writer portraits were published in the volumes Men of Mark (1913), More Men of Mark (1922), with the subsequent Musicians of Mark never completed. Mr. Coburn was a lifelong student of photogravure techniques, which served his Pictorialist vision well. He used several processes to their maximum advantage, whether it be striking angles, a custom-made soft-focus lens, gum printing with platinum papers, or experimenting with the Autochrome Lumiere color photography method. His famous "The Octopus" (1912) presented an intriguing and eye-catching view of the Metropolitan tower. That same year, he married another Boston native, Edith Wightman Clement.

Never content to maintain the photographic status quo, Mr. Coburn began using mirrors to mimic the Cubist movement popular during the early twentieth century. His portraits of writers Ezra Pound and Marius de Zayas required binding together three mirrors and used pieces of wood and crystal to manipulate light. In 1916, he created the Vortoscope, which was comprised of a trio of triangular mirrors that produced Kaleidoscope-like 'vortographs.' His independent wealth enabled Mr. Coburn and his wife to retire to Wales, where he became a freemason and dabbled in mysticism. In the mid-1960s, with his health failing, Mr. Coburn collaborated with photographic collectors Helmut and Alison Gernsheim to write his autobiography, which was published less than two weeks before his death on November 23, 1966, at the age of 84. Alvin Langdon Coburn's works can be found at England's Royal Photographic Society; the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

2017 Alvin Langdon Coburn: A Man of Mark and Mystery (URL:

1966 Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer: An Autobiography by Alvin Langdon Coburn (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.), pp. 12, 102.

2017 Alvin Langdon Coburn Self-Portrait (URL:

1978 Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide by Alfred Stieglitz (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.), p. 9.

2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 289-291.

2014 Look into My Vortex: The Astonishing Experimental Photography of Alvin Langdon Coburn (URL:

2015 Vortograph of Ezra Pound — Alvin Langdon Coburn (URL:

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