Famous Photographers Of Urban Scenes
Alvin Langdon Coburn

"Why should not the camera artist break away from the worn out conventions... and claim the freedom of expression which any art must have to be alive."
Alvin Langdon Coburn
Alvin Langdon Coburn - The Thousand Windows

Alvin Langdon Coburn was born in Boston, America in 1882. He was given his first camera when he was eight years of age by his mother who herself was a keen photographer.

A major factor in Coburn's interest in photography came after he visited his Cousin the art photographer Fred Holland Day. His cousin was an advocate for the pictorial movement, where photographs should resemble paintings and Coburn's early images certainly paid homage to that theory with the use of soft focus lens.

Coburn's images of London and the river Thames certainly have a romantic, misty atmosphere, reminiscent of the artist Whistler's work, which he admired.

Alvin Langdon Coburn - Flatiron

However he soon moved away from this pictorial approach preferring to experiment with new techniques of printing and design.

As his career progressed Coburn's work became more and more abstract in nature and this can be seen in his American Photographs of 1911 and 1912 of industrial scenes.

Soon after, he also began to use a technique he employed when photographing the Grand Canyon some years back, where he looked down into the Canyon to take a picture.

This time he would look down from the top of skyscrapers to create a series of pictures that were an attempt to create images which emulated the cubist movement.

Coburn's early work was his best and after moving to Wales in 1918, where he gained an interest in mysticism, he gradually lost touch with photography altogether.

Alvin Langdon Coburn's Techniques

Alvin Langdon Coburn - Williamsburg Bridge

Coburn enjoyed experimenting with the printing process and spent some years creating his own inks and trying out different grades of paper for the best effect.

His technique of changing the perspective of a scene by pointing the camera down created images that had no horizon and so created a more abstract image.

Arthur Wesley Dow's promotion of the sense of space and subtle atmosphere and the painter James McNeill Whistler's "nocturnes" influenced Coburn, as can be seen in Coburn's early cityscapes and pictorial images.

Coburn's Own Words About Photography

In 1916 Coburn was urging other photographers to experiment with their photography, saying:

"What would our grandfathers have said of the work of Matisse, Stravinsky, and Gertrude Stein?

If we are alive to the spirit of our time, it is these moderns who interest us…why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?

Why should not its subtle rapidity be utilized to study movement? Why not repeated successive exposures of an object in motion on the same plate? Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved?

Think of the joys of doing something which it would be impossible to classify, or to tell which was the top and which the bottom?"