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Review: Alvin Langdon Coburn by Pam Roberts

This beautifully bound, large-format, 296 page hardcover book was written by Pamela Roberts to accompany her exhibition based on the unique contribution to the developing photographic aesthetics made by the pioneering artistic photographer Alvin Landon Coburn. Having been unveiled at Fundacion Mapfre in Madrid, the exhibition is now en route to George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, where it will open in October 2015.

Prior to starting as a freelance writer and curator in 2001, Pamela Roberts was the curator of the RPS collection for nineteen years, until its transfer to the National Media Museum. This is the most recent one of many insightful volumes she has written on lesser known histories of photography and photographers.

Drawing on the world’s leading collections of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s prints and negatives, cameras, correspondence and ephemera from George Eastman House and the National Media Museum, along with contributions from smaller yet still significant collections, Roberts has assembled for the first time in one exhibition and one book the most comprehensive collection of his life’s work. Through a detailed understanding of his life, writings and letters, Roberts reveals a hitherto underappreciated, intellectual and creative depth and breadth to his photographic exploration and range of production. From portraits to monuments, stereographs to Vortographs, from his colourful prints and paintings to his stirring cityscapes and landscapes, the reader is led through Coburn’s decades of globetrotting and his tenaciously pioneering relationship with photography. Leaving none of his life out of focus, Robert’s coverage of the time when Coburn stepped away from the limelight to seek a more spiritual life is empathetic, revealing much more of the man himself away from the camera and photography.

The one hundred and eighty photographs featured in the book are meticulously reproduced to show the subtle nuances in tones and colours between each of the many processes Coburn chose over his lifetime. His breathtakingly beautiful images are exquisitely framed by Robert’s meticulously detailed and exhaustive text that brings to life the man behind the camera, pen and paintbrush. Her closely observed, rich contextualisation far exceeds Coburn's own painstaking autobiography or his collaborations with others in the latter part of his life. That which Coburn either dismissed or forgot Roberts has evoked to enrich our perspective of his life’s work.

Once Roberts has covered the early works and portraits, the layout and structure of the catalogue have been designed, due to Coburn’s apparent wanderlust, in geographical chronologies ending with his later work and paintings.

This book is unique and beautifully crafted, rendered with a similar spirit of craft, passion, consideration and empathy for Coburn as he had for his photography. As a catalogue it is an amazing permanent record of a unique exhibition. As a book it is a beautifully rendered biography in words and deeds, and comes highly recommended.

Janine Freeston
Chair of the Historical Group of The Royal Photographic Society

Alvin Langdon Coburn
Pamela Roberts and Anne Cartier-Bresson
Fundación Mapfre, 296 pages, 
ISBN 978-8498444988

Available from: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE or from Amazon.

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Comment by Pam Roberts on July 29, 2015 at 23:54

I thank Janine Freeston for her very generous, intelligent & sympathetic review of my Coburn book.  I know she has her own well-researched understanding & opinions about Coburn's work, whatever my opinions are.

For any upstate New York Americans on this list, interested in Coburn, my Coburn exhibition opens at George Eastman House in Rochester on 17 September & will be on show until late January 2016.

I am still working on a biography of Coburn.  My essay in the Coburn catalogue above is a small percentage of my research so far.  Research is ever more facinating these days given the amazing amount now online when all sorts of oddities come up.

Ever onward.


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