London Bridge Coburn, Alvin Langdon  (American, 1882-1966)

"He [Coburn] was the most important American photographer of his generation to expend significant energy on illustrating books." Looking for beauty in unlikely surroundings, Coburn would wait all day, revisiting the same spot for several days, to find that perfect consummation of light, self-expression and mood, and was happier photographing in London fog, which required ten minutes exposure at noon, than sunshine. In the case of his London Bridge (Bridge Sunlight) image, he claimed, "I worked nearly a year to get that London Bridge… in the [1905 London] Salon. Reviews agreed: "His one view of London Bridge which was singled out as the most notable architectural study of the last year’s exhibition season had an exposure of nearly a year… he was working on the bridge, studying it and making picture after picture until… eventually he obtained a position (on the top-most floor of one of the great riverside warehouses) and waited for the lighting which gave him exactly the picture he required." His London pictures are obviously and startlingly recognizably London, but taken from a viewpoint that few others had seen. Roberts p. 27

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.

References

Roberts, Pamela Glasson Coburn Alvin Langdon Pamela Glasson Roberts Fundación Mapfre and George Eastman House. 2014. Alvin Langdon Coburn. Madrid: Fundación Mapfre.