Friday, December 12, 2014


I turned on the radio instinctively as I got in the car after a very long day. The news bulletin caught my attention: there is going to be an Alvin Langdon Coburn Exhibition at the Mapfre Foundation Museum in Madrid. "Well," I thought, "I have an excuse to go there on yet another weekend getaway and visit the exhibition, browse piles of secondhand books at Cuesta de Moyano, and admire the great masters of painting at El Prado

Although I knew Coburn had photographed Shaw on several occasions during the 1900s, I was surprised to hear towards the end of the report that Shaw regarded Coburn as "the best photographer in the world". Did Shaw really say that?

Alvin Langdon Coburn-Shaw

You can bet your last dollar he did. In a letter to Archibald Henderson (29th July 1907), included in the Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910 (p. 704), Shaw is happy to learn that Henderson also likes Coburn's work: 

"I am glad you liked Coburn. He is a specially white youth, and, on the whole, the best photographer in the world."

Shaw then moves on to explain what he means by "on the whole," since other renowned photographers of the time were also exceedingly talented, but only at employing specific techniques or motifs. 

It is also worth mentioning that in this letter there is a brief mention of the controversy over Coburn's Le Penseur, a real-life recreation of Rodin's eponymous sculpture, with Shaw as the nude model

"He is quite right in saying that he could do no better with the Roding than he has already done. You see, that was what he meant to do; and if you dont like it (says Master Alvin) there is always the trade photographer to fall back on."

If you want to know more about the relationship between Shaw and Coburn, I suggest you take a look at the letters they exchanged. For example, you'll be able to see how knowledgeable Shaw was on photography, judging by the amount of technical details he is familiar with (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910, pp. 435-6). Of course, this is not news for most of my readers, especially those with whom I shared the unforgettable experience of hearing about Shaw: Man and Cameraman, a really exciting project for the digitation of Shaw's photographic collection. 

I know today's post is not one of those pithy and/or controversial quotations that Shaw used to spice his writing with, but I think it was worth it. What do you think? 

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