The first time I noticed Alvin Langdon Coburn‘s work was about a year ago in one of the first photography books I’d bought. I’d picked it up to get a general overview of the history of photography, learn some quotes and points of view, and sprinkled in among the other legendary works therein was “Octopus” by Coburn. It’s immediately recognizable, both for its vantage point and vintage, (its silver- or platinum-gum process).
The meetup drew about 15 people, some new and some veterans, and began punctually at 11:10 in the morning. Upon entering the exhibition space at Barbara de Braganza, I was taken immediately with Coburn’s work. I recognized touches of surrealism and Dada, and was thinking I knew well the roots of the work until I checked the dates: the 19-aughts, 1910s…Coburn’s work proved well ahead of its time, showing influences rather of cubism and acting in itself as an influence for the surrealists and so on, work that would be echoed and paid homage by some of the photographic greats of the 20th century.
He took care to include clarity-obscuring particles in much of his work: smoke, steam, mist and fog, sometimes rising straight up and sometimes being torn sideways in the wind. I marveled at the bulk of sheer effort and thought behind each image. How many times does a person have to visit a spot before the scene presents itself in the perfect manner? Coburn knew where to go and when to go, from the time of year to the time of day to get his shots. This simple truth helped me realize once more my own ignorance. I have tried to get to know Madrid well this last year, but I will not know her as well as Coburn knew his territories.
Also interesting was the depth of focus he could achieve with an 8×10 camera. I had never seen so much texture on open water, while keeping each line and spar of the bobbing boats clearly visible, for example, while simultaneously keeping a recognizable roofline crawling across the frame. I wondered why a person with a digital camera even tries to capture similar scenes, given the embarrassing deficit in quality between the two products.
Again in my photographic journey I was reminded how little the designation “street” matters in what I do. “It’s not street if…”, etc., makes less sense to say in light of such work as Coburn’s. He was interested in making innovative and complete works of art, rather than trying to conform to a definition. He was concerned primarily with expressing himself. Ultimately, I feel lucky that such wonderful exhibitions come through Madrid. Without this dedication to educating the interested about the history of photography, many people would continue fumbling in the dark, forever.
by Levi Shand