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Hyde Park Corner Coburn, Alvin Langdon  (American, 1882-1966)

“Hyde Park Corner is a photogravure from Coburn’s first photobook, London, a suite of etchings printed by the photographer himself. The photographs–whether showing coarse industrial areas or elegant urban spaces–present uncluttered spaces with crisp architectural forms, punctuated by people at work or leisure, usually depicted as unfocused or silhouetted figures. The folio includes images that Coburn had accumulated over five years, and they reflect his stylistic shift from the aesthetics of Pictorialism to Modernism. The later images were often taken from uncommon viewpoints and feature flattened perspective and geometric patterns.

In this image, the sense of expansive space, managed environment and soft light somehow evokes a theme of urban sophistication. Tall, cultivated trees growing from the pavement diminish in scale in the receding space, while in the distance a loaded horse-drawn omnibus has stopped for passengers. Though silhouetted in the sunlight, the carriage appears soft and distant, its outlines simplified. This poetic image evokes the hazy atmosphere of a city still shrouded in smoke and fog at the turn of the 20th century, when industrial factories and millions of domestic fires burned wood and coal, contributing to a permanent pall of smoke and condensing damp air. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this image is the soft shadow beneath the foreground tree, where dim light filters through the leaves to mottle the pavement.” from Acton, A History of Photography at the University of Notre Dame: Twentieth Century (Notre Dame, 2019

According to the British writer, George Bernhard Shaw: "This collection of photographs of London has been in preparation by Mr. Coburn for the past five years, but technically they represent the latest development of his art. … Recognizing… that in photogravure he has now, as the impressions in this volume show, won the same command of it as his earlier methods and can not only produce prints comparable to his finest achievements in gum-platinotype, but reproduce them with a certainty at a cost which makes such a publication as the present possible."

Coburn’s first, groundbreaking photobook, an elegant folio production of 20 hand-pulled gravure plates tipped onto rich gray paper, each prepared by Coburn himself. Poised at a crucial turning point in the history of photography, representing the "transition from pictorialism to modernism, from 19th- to 20th-century photography," this work illuminates "the concern of the more advanced pictorialist with ‘modern’ subjects, namely the 20th-century city—a shift in attitude that triggered the final push towards photographic modernism" (Parr & Badger I:74).

A key member of Alfred Stieglitz’ Photo-Secession and a friend of many Cubists, "Coburn had one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th century. Coburn’s London, for instance depicts London—Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park Corner, Waterloo Bridge, Kingsway, Saint Paul’s Cathedral—through a soft-focus painterly haze Coburn used the transitory medium of photography to displace time, to arrest and thereby eternalize the current moment" (Roth, 6, 38).

Boston-born Coburn based himself in London from around 1906, learning how to make photogravures at the London County Council School of Photo-engraving, and establishing a studio with two copperplate printing presses at the home he shared with his mother in Hammersmith. "In the period 1909-14 he etched and steel-faced eighty-three plates, and oversaw the printing of some 40,000 hand-pulled gravures." (ODNB). His first two publications London (1909) and New York (1910), were intended as the start of a series, exploring "the adventures of cities" each "containing twenty luscious hand-pulled photogravures" (Parr & Badger). A member of the Photo-Seccession with Stieglitz and Steichen, Coburn began working within a symbolist-pictorialist framework, but he came to be influenced by modernism,". a friend of the Cubists, Vorticists and Imagists, Coburn had one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twentieth century. At their best his photographs straddled the divide". Parr & Badger, I, p.74; Roth, 101, p. 38.

Reproduced / Exhibited

Weaver, Mike. Alvin Langdon Coburn, Symbolist Photographer, 1882-1966: Beyond the Craft. New York: Aperture, 1986. p. 15.

Roberts, Pamela G. Alvin Langdon Coburn. Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2014. cat. 55.

Coburn, Alvin L, Karl Steinorth, Nancy Newhall, and Anthony Bannon. Alvin Langdon Coburn – Photographs, 1900-1924. Zürich: Stemmle, 1998. Plate 69.