Alvin Langdon Coburn, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edinburgh

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This essay explores the meaning and significance of Alvin Langdon Coburn's photographs of Edinburgh. These images were taken in 1905 as illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's romantic panorama of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, first published in 1878. Stevenson and Coburn never met, but the photographer was enthralled by the writer's recollections of his 'precipitous city'. Coburn, like Stevenson, favoured 'Old Town' Edinburgh. His fascination with the medieval town, which stands in opposition to the rational plan of the 'New Town', reflected his emerging distaste for the modern world. I argue further that, despite his interest in photographing the modern city and despite the development of a modernist style in his Vortographs, Coburn was temperamentally inclined to nostalgic and romantic tropes. This disposition was perfectly expressed in his Pictorialism. In this respect, Coburn's drift away from photography, after 1920, was not straightforwardly a reaction to the emergence of 'straight' and 'formalist' photography. Nor was it wholly the natural ascendancy of his mystical vocation. Rather, he was reacting against the materialism and rationalism of the modern world. In Edinburgh Coburn discovered a world congenial to his romantic spirituality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-59
Number of pages15
JournalHistory of Photography
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2005


  • Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
  • Edinburgh
  • Pictorialism
  • modernity
  • romanticism


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