The Photography of Gordon Coster
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906, Gordon H. Coster was an American photographer known for his abstracted industrial images and his photojournalism documenting civil rights and labor issues. Interested in photography from an early age, he joined the Baltimore Camera Club in the early 1920s and garnered a reputation when his modernistic images were accepted in international photographic salons. At nineteen years old, Coster’s 1925 Bauhaus-inspired image of Baltimore’s Washington Monument, “Shadow of the Washington Monument”, was published in the Baltimore Sun’s rotogravure section.
From 1920 to 1925, Gordon Coster worked for the Bachrach Portrait Studio in Baltimore. Once photography replaced drawing in advertising illustration, he moved to New York City where he became employed by the prestigious Underwood & Underwood. Originally the largest producer and distributor of stereoscopic and other photographic images, the photographic studio became a pioneer in the field of news bureau photography. Coster secured his place in the field by creating innovative advertising and industrial photo-illustrations for newspapers, magazines and catalogues.
From the beginning of 1927 through 1936, Coster documented labor union activities. He relocated to Chicago in 1930 where he founded a mid-western branch of Underwood & Underwood. During his years in Chicago, Coster developed an unique artistic style for his evening cityscapes. These experimental works presented an abstracted perspective of Chicago’s buildings, shot with tilted angles and occasionally through unfocused lenses. Coster shifted his career to photojournalism with freelance work for such periodicals as Life, Scientific American, Time, Fortune, and Holiday.
Gordon Coster’s personal commitment to the welfare of his fellow citizens led to many extensive documentary projects. In the late 1930s, he produced many projects dedicated to American life in the mid-west. Coster created a series on the lives of wheat farmers and a detailed photo-documentary on the Tennessee Valley Authority Dam Project. Passed in 1933, the TVA project, though controversial at the time, transformed the wild Tennessee Valley river system into a stable region with flood-control, safe navigation, electrification, and economic development. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Coster documented the impact of World War II on the U.S. home front through images of factories repurposed for military production, women assembly-line workers, and rallies to support the troops.
In 1946 Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy, who founded the Chicago Institute of Design, invited Coster to lecture at the institute’s course “The New Vision in Photography” alongside such eminent photographers as Paul Strand, Erwin Blumenfeld and Berenice Abbott. Coster returned to lecture in 1950 to 1951 and later in 1960 with a focus on socially-oriented themes. In 1955, Edward Steichen selected Coster’s work for inclusion in the landmark exhibition “The Family of Man” held at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
Gordon Coster ceased his photographic work in 1964 and eventually retired in 1982. He passed away in 1988 at the age of sixty-two. Coster’s work has been included in exhibitions at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, London’s Viewfinder Gallery, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Notes: Gordon Coster’s photographic work is included in the current 2023 exhibition “Trick Photography and Visual Effects” (January 19 to March 18) at the Keith de Lellis Gallery located at 41 East 57th Street in New York City.
A major collection of Gordon Coster’s work, including over twenty-five thousand prints, negatives, transparencies, and film reels, is housed at the Research Center of the Chicago History Museum.
Top Insert Image: Gordon Coster, “Self Portrait”, circa 1945, Gelatin Silver Print, 20.3 x 25.4 cm, Private Collection
Second Insert Image: Gordon Coster, “Eliot Elisofon”, 1942, Gelatin Silver Print, Life Magazine Cover July 13, 1942, International Center of Photography
Bottom Insert Image: Gordon Coster, “Chicago Outdoor Street Market”, 1944, Gelatin Silver Print, Life Magazine Collection, 33.7 x 26.7 cm, International Center of Photography