By Andrea Lynn
Prints made 87 years ago by a revolutionary American photographer for a famous British writer, and recently serendipitously found by two professors at the UI in the dark recesses of a locked library storage area, will bask in the limelight of a special exhibition.
The exhibition, "Alvin Langdon Coburn and H.G. Wells: The Photographer and the Novelist," will run from Jan. 24 to March 23 in the Krannert Art Museum at the UI. The centerpiece of the free public exhibition is the prints Coburn made to accompany Wells' book of short stories, "The Door in the Wall." Coburn sent the prints to Wells as a gift after the two had collaborated on that book and one other.
The exhibition also will include a copy of the original "Door in the Wall" book, published in 1911 by the American publisher Mitchell Kennerley, and 28 unpublished letters from Coburn to Wells, chronicling their relationship and their slow-moving joint project. In a letter dated Dec. 3, 1907, Coburn invites Wells to stop by his studio so that he can make a color autochrome of the writer. "I have always thought that your air ships would come before real colour photography, but here it is as large as life and twice as natural." Also in the exhibition is a black and white print photo that Coburn, often labeled a pictorialist or symbolist photographer, made of Wells.
According to Maarten van de Guchte, director of the Krannert Art Museum and contributor to the Coburn exhibition catalog, Coburn "was an eminently capable photographer who knew most luminaries of his time and who crisscrossed the boundaries between literature and artistic photography."
"He's a prime example of pioneering work, artistic sensibility and a great sense of artistic vision," van de Guchte said, adding that Coburn's photos are "small jewels of photographic nuance and subtly."
Coburn, also an art collector of note, called himself "the [James McNeill] Whistler of photography." In 1911, Coburn wrote that photography "is the most modern of the arts ... more suited to the art requirements of this age of scientific achievements than any other." Later in life, he abandoned photography and publishing, said George Hendrick, the co-curator of the Coburn exhibition, and "his name would be forgotten for quite some time. Since his death in 1966, however, Coburn has been rediscovered."
The "Door in the Wall" collaboration between Coburn and Wells and Frederic W. Goudy, a typographer, has been described by more than one authority as "a landmark in the history of the photographically illustrated book, representing the first true collaboration of author, photo-illustrator and typographer." According to van de Guchte, Coburn's large luminous plates for "The Door" are "memorable images, haunting and mysterious."
At least one photograph, the one for the story "The Lord of the Dynamos," was a photomontage, with huge industrial cogwheels in the background, a North African worker in the foreground.
The "Door" book collaboration was the second time the photographer and writer worked together on a publication. In 1910, Coburn produced a volume of soft focus photographs of the rapidly changing New York City. Titled "New York," the book included shots of many city landmarks, such as the Flatiron Building, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Battery, and an enthusiastic introduction by Wells. Coburn's urban photographs are distinguished by architectural and technological themes and high-angle views of the city. Like Steiglitz, Coburn cut off buildings and smokestacks, emphasizing "the fragmentary nature of their photographs," van de Guchte writes, noting that in this way, Coburn "disintegrated" the city. Prints from the "New York" book, also found in the cubbyhole, will be on display in the Krannert special exhibition.
It was through George Bernard Shaw that Coburn met Wells in 1905. The three lunched together at Wells' new house, Sandgate. "Still very shy and awkward," Coburn wrote in his autobiography, "I managed to spill a cup of tea in my lap and had to put on a pair of Wells's trousers while my own were being dried." Coburn had photographed Shaw the previous year; the famous writer called Coburn "one of the most accomplished and sensitive artist-photographers now living." Coburn then spent two years, from 1905 to 1907, on photographic frontispieces for Henry James' 24-volume set of "Novels and Tales."
The photographs for "The Door" and "New York" were found by chance by Hendrick, a professor of English at the UI, and Nancy Romero, a professor of library administration, librarian in the university's Rare Book and Special Collections Library and co-curator of the Coburn exhibition. Rummaging around in a dark cubbyhole in the stacks of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, in pursuit of Coburn's prints of Mark Twain, they came upon the portfolio of 29 prints Coburn sent Wells. Nearly a half-century after they had been given to Wells, the prints were given to the UI Library from Wells' son George ("Gip") Wells, when he was visiting the UI campus in 1958.
The university Library made its first acquisition of Wells' personal papers in 1954. Additions to the Wells Archive have continued throughout the years, including a major acquisition in late 1992. The UI Wells Archive is generally considered the world's premier Wells collection.
A corollary exhibition of Coburn's Twain prints will run concurrently in the library's Rare Book and Special Collections Library.