Monday, September 13, 2010

Alvin Langdon Coburn in North Wales

Wales has long been drop-out central for artists and seekers of odd utopias. One of my favourites is American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). He is famed for his pioneering symbolist photos, heavily influenced by Japanese art. His Men of Mark books of portraiture are also well-known. These included studies of Henri Matisse, Mark Twain, Auguste Rodin, Theodore Roosevelt and many other greats of his day. In addition Coburn is noted for his vortographs. What may look like camera-shake to you and I was, in fact, a conscious attempt to bring to photography the aesthetic values of Vorticism – then in vogue in the art world. His Ezra Pound vortographs (see pic) are perhaps his most famous.

In 1930 he did something strange. He gave up his Hammersmith home, destroyed almost all of his negatives, donated what was left of his photography collection to the Royal Photographic Society, and moved to Harlech to pursue an interest in Freemasonry. Maybe it was the recent death of his mother; or the loss of his treasured Pianola rolls in a flood (don’t ask!), that prompted this radical break with his past.

Coburn was actually no stranger to north Wales. He first visited Harlech in 1916 at the invitation of George Davison, a photographer and philanthropist. He was also really interested in Druidism. In fact in 1927 he was made an Honorary Ovate of the Welsh Gorsedd. He took the Welsh ceremonial name of Mab-y-Trioedd (Son of the Triads). During his stay in Wales he balanced his esoteric spiritual quests with more mundane activities. In 1935, for example, he became a lay reader for the Church in Wales. He’d practically lost all interest in photography but did take some snaps of dolmens and standing stones – many of them in Wales - circa 1937. During WW2 he turned his home into a 15 bed hospital and was appointed honorary secretary of the Merionethshire Joint County Committee of the British Red Cross Society. It’s interesting to note that while Coburn was performing his civic duties, his former sitter, Ezra Pound, was doing propaganda broadcasts for Benito Mussolini.

After the war he moved to Colwyn Bay where he continued his interest in Freemasonry until his death in 1966. He died at Awen, Ebberstone Road East, Rhos-on-Sea. There is apparently a commemorative plaque on the house. A collection of his papers can be found at Colwyn Bay library.