Alvin Langdon Coburn is widely regarded by fine art photographers as one of the most influential and innovative photographers of his day, instrumental in creating the fine art tradition, and pre-empting the entire abstract, symbolist, and evocative photographic trends that came much later. Alvin Coburn was, by all accounts, a prodigy. Although he had only been experimenting with (the then rather primitive) cameras of the mid 1890’s, his older cousin Howard Day was a member of the Royal Photographic Society, who chose nine of Coburn’s own compositions alongside his own and others amongst an exhibition of a hundred for the society. Coburn was only seventeen at the time, but his playful style and extreme attention to detail and composition secured for him commission after commission, and his future career was set.
When we consider collecting the works of Coburn, we are really referring to either the more abstract prints that he made for the pure love of photography, or the exact and emotive photographic portraits that he made of leading figures of his day, including George Bernard Shaw, Rodin, Henry James, H.G. Wells, G.K Chesterton amongst many others. It is to these later portraits that we are usually referring; entitled as his ‘Men of Mark’ series. For the collector they provide an opportunity to not only collect Coburn, but also a unique window into the times, with real depictions of some of the centuries greatest artists, writers, and cultural figures. Coburn also has a playful style, such as his strong use of fade and contrast. George Bernard Shaw for example (a man that he photographed many times) even appeared nude for the photographer in the classic pose of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’!
Luckily perhaps, Coburn occupies a rather select space in the collectors’ world, and so it is perhaps easier to be able to afford some very singular and individual works – a First Edition More Men of Mark (Whittaker London, 1922) which was Coburn’s second compendium of portraiture, featuring no less than Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound can be found for as little as $300-400, and would make a remarkably good addition to anyone interested in the rise of Modernism.
For the truly dedicated collector however The Book of Harlech (DH Parry, 1920) might also be favorable – a small printing of a rather unknown work in which Coburn had much more authorial control, available for as little as $350. At the far end of the spectrum resides the spectacular limited collector’s first edition Men of Mark (Duckworth & Co, 1913) with all of the ‘greats’ contained with their signatures – this very rare edition is highly valuable at some $15,000!
Coburn, Alvin Fox, M. The Blue Grass Cook Book. Duffield & Co. (1904). Frontispiece and 11 halftone photographs
Coburn, Alvin Henderson, A. Mark Twain. Duckworth & Co (1911). Photographic plates, two in color, tipped in; eight monochrome
Coburn, Alvin Wells, H G. The Door in the Wall. Mitchell Kennerley (1911). hand-pulled gravures from Coburn's photographs
Coburn, Alvin Henderson, A. Mark Twain. Frederick A. Stokes (1912). two color plates from autochromes and other illustrations from photographs
Coburn, Alvin. Men of Mark. Duckworth & Co. (1913). Thirty-three photogravures
Coburn, Alvin. London. Chiswick Press (1914). 10 tipped-in photogravures
Coburn, Alvin. Moor Park: Rickmansworth. Elkin Mathews (1915). 20 tipped-in mezzogravure photographic plates
Coburn, Alvin. The Book of Harlech. D.H. Parry (1920). 20 tipped-in photogravure plates
Coburn, Alvin. More Men of Mark. Duckworth & Co. (1922). 33 hand-tipped full-page collotype plates
Coburn, Alvin. Edingburgh: Picturesque Notes. Picturesque Notes, Rupert Hart-Davis (1954). 23 full page b&w photographs