See his autobiography (1966) and study by M. Weaver (1986).
Coburn was born on June 11, 1882, at 134 East Springfield Street in Boston, Massachusetts, to a middle-class family. His father, who had established the successful firm of Coburn & Whitman Shirts, died when he was seven. After that he was raised by his solely by his mother, Fannie, who remained the primary influence in his early life, even though she remarried when he was a teenager. In his autobiography, Coburn wrote, "My mother was a remarkable woman of very strong character who tried to dominate my life…It was a battle royal all the days of our life together.
In 1890 the family visited his maternal uncles in Los Angeles, and they gave him a 4 x 5 Kodak camera. He immediately fell in love with the camera, and within a few years he had developed a remarkable talent for both visual composition and technical proficiency in the darkroom. When he was sixteen years old, in 1898, he met his cousin F. Holland Day, who was already an internationally known photographer with considerable influence. Day recognized Coburn’s talent and both mentored him and encouraged him to take up photography as a career.
At the end of 1899 his mother and he moved to London, where they met up with Day. Day had been invited by the Royal Photographic Society to select prints from the best American photographers for an exhibition in London. He brought more than a hundred photographs with him, including nine by Coburn – who at this time was only 17 years old. With the help of his cousin Coburn’s career took a giant first step.
Coburn’s prints at the Royal Photographic Society attracted the attention of another important photographer, Frederick H. Evans . Evans was one of the founders of the Linked Ring, an association of artistic photographers which was considered at that time to be the highest authority for photographic aesthetics. In the summer of 1900 Coburn was invited to exhibit with them, which elevated him to the ranks of some of the most elite photographers of the day.
In 1901 Coburn lived in Paris for a few months so he could study with photographer Edward Steichen and Robert Demachy . He and his mother then toured France, Switzerland and Germany for the reminder of the year.
When they returned to America in 1902, Coburn began studying with famed photographer Gertrude Kasebier in New York. He opened a photography studio on Fifth Avenue but spent much of his time that year studying with leading Arthur Wesley Dow at his School of Art in Massachusetts. At the same time, his mother continued to promote her son whenever she could. Stieglitz once told an interviewer, "Fannie Coburn devoted much energy trying to convince both Day and me that Alvin was a greater photographer than Steichen.
The following year Coburn was elected as an Associate of the Linked Ring, making him one of the youngest members of that group and one of only a few Americans to be so honored. In May he was given his first one-man show at the Camera Club of New York, and in July Stieglitz published one of his gravures in Camera Work, No. 3.
In 1904 Coburn returned to London with a commission from The Metropolitan Magazine to photograph England’s leading artists and writers, including G.K. Chesterton, George Meredith, and H.G. Wells. During this trip he visited renowned pictorialist J. Craig Annan in Edinburgh and made studies of motifs photographed by pioneering photographers Hill and Adamson. Six more of his images were published in Camera Work, No. 6 (April, 1904).
Coburn remained in London throughout 1905 and much of 1906, taking both portraits and landscapes around England. He photographed Henry James for The Century magazine and returned to Edinburgh for a series he intended to be visualizations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes.
The years 1906-07 were some of the most prolific and important for Coburn. He began 1906 by having one-man shows at the Royal Photographic Society (accompanied by a catalog with a preface by George Bernard Shaw) and at the Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association. In July five more gravures were published in Camera Work (No. 15). At the same time he began to study photogravure printing at the London County Council School of Photo-Engraving. It was during this time that Coburn made one of his most famous portraits, that of George Bernard Shaw posing nude as Rodin’s The Thinker.
In the summer he cruised round the Mediterranean and traveled to Paris, Rome and Venice in the fall while working on frontispieces for an American edition of Henry James’ novels. While in Paris he see Steichen’s Autochrome color prints and learns the process from him.
By 1907 Coburn was so well established in his career that Shaw called him "the greatest photographer in the world," although he was only 24 years old at the time. He continued his success by having a one-man show at Stieglitz’s prestigious Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York and by organizing an international exhibition of photography at the New English Art Galleries in London. At the request of American art collector Charles Lang Freer, Coburn briefly returned to the U.S. so he could photograph Freer’s large collection of oriental art and Whistler prints. Coburn became captivated with the “exotic” style of the oriental artists, and it began to have an influence in both his thinking and his photography.
In January, 1908, twelve more of Coburn’s photographs were published in Camera Work (No. 21). Oddly, in the same issue there was an anonymous article that leveled some harsh words at him:
The author was probably Stieglitz, who sometimes delighted in both promoting and castigating a photographer, especially if he felt the person was becoming too conceited. The criticism did not seem to have a long-term affect on their relationship, as both continued to be close colleagues for many years.
In the spring Coburn had another one-man show, this time at the Goupil Galleries in New York. Soon after he wrote to Stieglitz, "Printing almost entirely in gray now... think it a reaction from the autochomes…" In the summer he visited Dublin, where he made portraits of W.B. Yeats and George Moore. He continued his travels that year with trips to Bavaria and Holland.
The next year Stieglitz gave Coburn his second one-man exhibition at his gallery, which by that time had come to be known only as "291". Another sign of Coburn’s prominence at that time was that Stieglitz had only given two shows to one other photographer – Edward Steichen. Back in London, Coburn bought a new home with a large studio area where he set up two printing presses. He proceeded to use the skills he’d learned at the County Council School to publish a book of his own photographs called London.
Coburn returned to America in 1910, exhibiting 26 prints at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. He began traveling extensively in the U.S. for the next year, going to Arizona to photograph the Grand Canyon and to California to take photos in Yosemite National Park. He came back to New York in 1912 and took a series of new photos which he published in his book New York. It was during this period that he made some of his most famous photographs from elevated viewpoints, including his best known image The Octopus.
While in New York he met and married Edith Wightman Clement of Boston on October 11, 1912. In November Coburn and his wife returned to England, and after twenty-three trans-Atlantic crosses he never again returned to the United States.
Coburn continued to build his fame by publishing what would become his most famous book, Men of Mark, in 1913. The book featured 33 gravure prints of important European and American authors, artists and statesmen, including Henri Matisse, Henry James, August Rodin, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and William Butler Yeats. In the preface to the book, he says:
In 1915 Coburn organized the exhibition "Old Masters of Photography", shown at the Royal Photographic Society in London and at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in the U.S. The show included many historical prints from Coburn’s own collection.
The following year two pivotal events occurred in his life. He met George Davison, a fellow photographer and a philanthropist who was involved in Theosophy and Freemasonry. This started him on a path of studying mysticism, metaphysical ideals and Druidism. Eventually he would devote most of his life to these studies, foregoing photography as his primary interest.
Concurrently he met Ezra Pound, who introduced him to the short-lived Vorticism movement in Britain. These new visual aesthetics intrigued Coburn and, provoked by his growing spiritual quest, he began to re-examine his photographic style. He responded by making a bold and distinctive portrait of Pound, showing three over-lapping images of differing sizes. Within a brief period he moved from this semi-representative image to a series of abstract images that are among the first completely non-representative photographs ever made.
To make these images Coburn invented a kaleidoscope-like instrument with three mirrors clamped together, which when fitted over the lens of the camera would reflect and fracture the image. Pound called this instrument a "Vortescope" and the resulting photographs "Vortographs". He made only about 18 different Vortographs, taken over a period of just one month, yet they remain among the most striking images in early 20th century photography.
In 1917 he had a show of Vortographs and paintings at the Goupil Galleries in New York. He had recently started painting, mostly in the Post-Impressionist style, and the combination of second-rate paintings along with his highly unusual photographs was not well received. Stieglitz in particular did not like the change in Coburn’s imagery, and he rejected several prints for a show he was putting together.
From 1919 to 1921 Coburn became increasingly involved with the Freemasons, achieving the title of Royal Arch Mason. He also joined the Societas Rosicruciana and delved further into metaphysical studies.
In 1922 Coburn briefly returned to his roots when he published More Men of Mark, a second book of portraits he had taken more than ten years earlier. This volume included previously unpublished photographs that included Pound, Thomas Hardy, Frank Harris, Joseph Conrad, Israel Zangwill and Edmund Dulac.
In 1923 Coburn met a man who would become a major influence on him for the rest of his life. The man was the leader of the Universal Order, a comparative religious group that began as the Hermetic Truth Society and the Order of Ancient Wisdom. The identity of the man was known to Coburn, but it has been kept from anyone outside of the Order due to the Society’s strict doctrine of anonymity. There was something about him, however, that struck a chord with Coburn, and "Coburn’s solidity as a citizen and the falling-away of all mundane ambition thereafter was due to his direct influence."
Throughout the 1920s and 30s Coburn enmeshed himself in the beliefs of the Universal Order, which, according to their quarterly magazine The Shrine of Wisdom, were devoted to "Synthetic Philosophy, Religion and Mysticism". His deep interest in mysticism, and especially freemasonry, was to occupy the greatest part of the remainder of his life. Coburn did much research into the history of freemasonry, as well as on aspects of the occult and mysticism. He presented numerous lectures based on his findings to Masonic gatherings, travelling extensively throughout England and Wales. He also took a particular interest in the ceremonial rituals and rites performed, and in their origins and symbolism.
In 1927 Coburn was made an honorary Ovate of the Welsh Gorsedd, or Council of Druids, and he took the Welsh name "Maby-y-Trioedd" (Son of the Triads).
In 1928 his mother died. She had been a major influence on him for much of his life, and her passing was yet one more sign that his new devotion to religious interests was the right course for him.
By 1930 Coburn had lost almost all interest in photography. He decided that his past was of little use to him now, and over the summer he destroyed nearly 15,000 glass and film negatives – nearly his entire life’s output. This same year he donated his extensive collection of contemporary and historical photographs to the Royal Photographic Society.
A year later he wrote his last letter to Stieglitz, and from then on he made only a few new photographs. Ironically, just when he was making an almost complete break from photography Coburn was elected Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
After living in England for more than twenty years, Coburn finally became a British subject in 1932.
His wife Edith died on 11 October 1957, their forty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Coburn died in his home in North Wales on 23 November 1966.