I had a splendid photographic day yesterday. Geoff Wittig and I (Geoff wrote yesterday's book reviews) journeyed to the George Eastman Museum (GEM, formerly known as George Eastman House or GEH) in Rochester, former epicenter of the photographic world. We went to see the Alvin Langdon Coburn exhibit before it closes; it was Geoff's second visit to the show, my first.
Here's Geoff next to Alvin at the entry to the show. He looks a bit punk and insolent, doesn't he? (Alvin, not Geoff.) All of my pictures are blurred by camera shake; I couldn't hold the camera steady in the low light.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, if you don't know the name, born 1882, was a pictorialist enfant terrible (nevertheless dominated by his strong-willed mother) who did his best work before the First World War—he gained substantial fame and reputation while still in his teens and twenties. But speaking of sharpness, it was pretty amusing to see Coburn's strongly pictorialist photographic style in light of today's torrid discussions of resolution and sharpness. Everyone who was anyone in his day considered an impressionistic unsharpness to be the mark of artistic interpretation, and photographers across the Western world prized "diffusion." The public now, not knowing any better, thinks that old lenses from around the turn of the 20th century were not sharp because the technology simply hadn't progressed far enough. Not so. Lensmakers vied with each other to make lenses deliberately designed to be unsharp, first for portraits, then for everything. Photographers went to great lengths to seek out lenses with just the proper degree and type of blurriness. And, at clubs and salons and in photographic journals, they argued about just which lenses were the most perfectly unsharp. (I know it appears that I'm kidding, but I am not.) I recall reading about one photographer who kept the identity of his prized portrait lens a secret so his competitors would find it harder to mimic him.
Virtually all of Coburn's prints in the GEM show are floridly, extravagantly unsharp. As you might expect, it works for some subject matter and not for others. Coburn was visually adventuresome (credited as the first to master high viewpoints, for instance), but his Western landscapes simply fail in comparison to the work of Group ƒ/64 photographers and later practitioners; blurry, dark waterfalls with no detail just kinda fall down. The other main aspect of the pictorialist aesthetic is a relentless, unreal darkness, rendering even bright sunlight tepid and murky; whole pictures take place in the lower tones. Compare that to the demotic style of great swaths of the Digital Tsunami, dictated not by intention but by the natural look of early and bad digital, which is to cheerfully lose the whole top part of the tonal scale to featureless white. However, also as you might expect of a great photographer, Coburn more often makes his technical aesthetic work. The best of the many prints on display are profoundly lovely. And in many cases still original.
Alfred Stieglitz by Alvin Langdon Coburn
I have a bit of a thing for pictures of photographers, so as you might guess I loved this fine portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, the most important American figure in the early history of photography as art. I didn't see another of my favorite Coburn portraits, an autochrome color picture of Mark Twain in a red silk robe, in bed, reading. I think that one's in England(?).
Coburn's later experiments with Vorticism might have seemed edgy at the time, and are dutifully remarked as early "pure abstract" photography (the very term a bit of an oxymoron in my view), but they seem like empty pretension (again, to me) now. His famous Vorticist portrait of Ezra Pound would have been better straight, in my view. To each his own taste. Coburn reached the end of his life (quite late—he didn't die until 1966) growing increasingly eccentric. Eventually he put aside photographic pursuits in favor of an increasingly heavy involvement in spiritualism, mysticism, and the occult.
Coburn's opium pipes. Opium was legal until 1905, when the
photographer would have been 23.
The George Eastman Museum did an over-the-top great job with the show. Seldom will the world see a greater number of exceedingly fine original Coburn prints exhibited all together in adjacent rooms. The supporting material added just the right level of richness. The wall placards were in English, not artspeak. Curator Pamela G. Roberts, former curator of the Royal Photographic Society, drew mainly from the GEM's own collection (the GEM's being the largest Coburn holding extant—he willed his estate to them), but, crucially, filled key gaps with loans from other museums.
I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the museum store was sold out of the show catalog. Seeing so many exquisitely crafted prints—not for nothing did Coburn have a reputation as a maestro in the darkroom—unexpectedly lit a fire under my own enthusiasm for Coburn, and I felt a certain urgency to try to preserve the experience by buying the catalog. Turns out even Amazon is almost out of them. And GEM won't be getting more—I asked. Amazon UK is almost out too. It's possible the publisher has more, of course.
Applause from here. Very nice job*.
That ain't all
Amazingly, my day with Geoff got better from there...we were allowed down into the Museum's vast underground treasure vault—the one where they keep what is arguably the world's most important and extensive collection of cameras. I'll tell you all about that in a little bit—I need to go have my breakfast first. But here's a tiny taste (of our visit to the vaults, not my breakfast!):
It's Alvin Langdon Coburn's Pinkham & Smith lens. Cool, huh? And yes, they really did spell his name wrong in the engraving! Oh well.
More soon**. And many thanks to Geoff for suggesting the outing, and getting me to unchain my ankle from the leg of the TOP Command Post, a.k.a. my desk.
*Except for the low lighting, following the current dumb fashion in alleged conservation at many museums, which appear to be trying to ruin their own reputations with the public and get people to stop coming to museums. In this case, however, the muddy lighting didn't hurt all that much, because the prints themselves are pretty dark and murky! It actually seemed to suit them. Well, almost.
**Might be tomorrow, to be honest.
ADDENDUM #1: An earlier version of the post had a picture of the wrong lens! Sorry about that. Fixed now.
ADDENDUM #2: Lest you doubt my comments about our photographic forebears' preference in lenses, here's a marvelous little sampling of Alvin Langdon Coburn's thoughts about his lenses. In case you don't make it down that far, he writes:
I now have about a dozen P. & S. (Semi-Achromatic) lenses of various focal lengths, most of which have been especially made for me. When I am in Boston, I always make my way to 288 Boylston Street, to enjoy a chat with a tall, kindly man who thinks in glass. I tell him my troubles and my needs, and not long afterward, I receive a package which, after burrowing through the excelsior packing, gives up a small glistening object. This is the lens—nothing like it has been made before—nothing just like it is apt to be made again, for Mr. Smith is a revolutionary in photographic optics, and he gets lots of fun out of life.
Is that a very early version of an unboxing video, or what?!
Click on the image to make it larger and easier to read. Many thanks to Todd Gustavson for providing this and the picture of Alvin's lens.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Kevin Purcell: "Semi-Achromatic lens? Isn't that like being a bit pregnant? I had to look it up: the semi-achromatic lens has all the 'pictoriality' of a pinhole but faster exposure times."
Chap Achen: "I had the opportunity to attend a church auction and there was a beautiful wonderful 8x10 studio camera with film holders, reducing backs for 5x7 and 4x5 film, several film holders, but no lens. I asked the photographer's widow as to the location of the missing lens. She replied that her husband asked her to bury the lens with him when he died. He did not want anyone else to use what he considered was his 'trademark' look."
Chris Wentz: "When I was in high school in the '70s I did a work study term at the local portrait studio. The photographer did posed portraits in a classical style. I remember the man raving about his favorite lens being needle sharp. But then, and I’m sure I remember this correctly, while printing, he waved a piece of lens tissue under the enlarger for a moment to soften the image. I think we are currently experiences an orgy of sharpness. Why? Because we can. It's a kind of stunt: sharpness for the sake of it. It certainly has little to do with whether a photo is worth looking at."
Steven Willard: "I had grown increasingly frustrated by the fact that all of my images shared the antiseptic look of unrelenting sharpness and no 'romance,' for want of a better term. I kept looking at one of my prints from a negative made on 4x5 by an old Turner Reich triple convertible probably made before WWI. It is sharp enough, but has a glow I had been missing in my images. Modern lenses are a treat to use, but the results can sometimes (for me) be like sitting too close to the stage at the ballet. I don't want to hear the grunts and groans or see the sweat! I want romance."