Study-Miss. R Coburn, Alvin Langdon  (American, 1882-1966)

Fresh from his training in Gertrude Käsebier’s New York portrait studio, London-based Coburn greatly increased his profile in art-photography circles with a suite of images prominently featured in a 1904 issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s influential journal, Camera Work. About the same time, critic Sadakichi Hartmann praised the young photographer’s technical skill and artistic vision but gently critiqued his portraits as "at present rather unsatisfactory" and lacking "the gift of characterization." Coburn quickly sought to rectify such an impression with his Men of Mark series, which featured many prominent British authors, but an alternative and more radical direction is suggested by this piercing study of "Miss R.," reproduced in the same journal later that year. The portrait’s subject, Sarah "Landon" Rives, presented a singular challenge to Coburn, whom she hired to set up a darkroom on the grounds of her historic plantation home of Castle Hill, in Virginia. Her gaunt face, tousled hair, and uncompromising stare emerge from the dark ochres of the pigmented print, intent on countering the vestigial ideal of passive femininity so common in the concoctions of Pictorialist photographers of the day. [1]

A gum bichromate over platinum print from this negative is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which making for an informative comparison to the potential of photogravure to capture and accurately portray the Pictorialist aesthetic.


[1] MET site cited 1/23