Text from The Photography Encyclopedia
Coburn, Alvin Langdon
Coburn, Alvin Langdon American abstract photographer
Working both in the United States and Britain, Coburn was an internationally recognized leader of the Modernist age, producing symbolic and abstract photographs ranging from portraits of his friends to landscapes to abstract constructions.
Influenced by his cousin, the photographer F Holland Day, Coburn by the age of 21 had become a serious photographer, opening a studio in New York City in 1902. While living in New York, he took many soft-focus cityscapes, some from rooftops that created distorted perspectives and emphasized the abstract patterns of city streets.
He emigrated to London in 1904 for a commission to photograph celebrities and eventually became a British subject. He studied the art of photogravure in England, and a portfolio of his appeared in Camera Work. A member of The Linked Ring in Britain and the Photo Secessionist movement in New York, he became friends with Clarence White, Gertrude Kasebier, and Alfred Stieglitz. The celebrity photos he took in London were published in book form, Men of Mark, in 1913.
Influenced also by Ezra Pound, one of the avant garde writers he had photographed, Coburn turned to abstraction, hoping to free the camera from "the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried," just as Gertrude Stein had done with literature and Igor Stravinsky had done with music. Coburn's abstract studies, called vortographs, were taken with a kaleidoscope attached to the camera.
In the early 1920s Coburn became involved with Freemasonry and thereafter did very little photography.
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