Gordon Coster (1906-1988) was an American modernist photographer and photojournalist, known for his dynamic abstracted views of industrial scenes in the American Midwest and his important coverage of labor and civil-rights issues.
Gordon Coster was an early modernist photographer who led a distinguished four-decade, multi-faceted career in advertising, industrial photography, and photojournalism. His versatile portfolio is tied together by an unfailing compositional eye and a dedication to photographing all things—from a simple glass of milk to the interior of a bustling auto parts factory—with equal respect and care. Seen altogether, Coster’s extensive oeuvre culminates in a distinct snapshot of mid-century life in America, with portfolios of work covering some of the most defining moments in our nation’s history.
Growing up in Baltimore, Coster explored his early passion for photography by becoming a member of the Baltimore Camera Club in the 1920s. While there, he made a name for himself when his modernistic images were accepted for exhibition in important international photographic salons. He had an interest in the Bauhaus, as evidenced by his 1925 photograph, “Shadow of the Washington Monument,” which was reproduced in the Baltimore Sun. At the ripe age of 19-years-old, Coster was already making a name for himself as a talented and cutting-edge photographer.
Working in the photo-illustration studio of a local Baltimore department store, Coster observed firsthand the shift from drawing to photography in advertising illustration, and saw the moment as an opportunity. Eager to situate himself at the forefront of this new photographic territory, Coster moved to New York and landed a job photographing for the prestigious Underwood & Underwood Studios headed by Lejaren Hiller. Then, in 1930, Coster relocated to Chicago and founded a mid-western branch of Underwood & Underwood Studios before opening his own studio there in 1936. For the next six years, Coster photographed professionally for Marshall Field Company and other large Chicago institutions, but his personal photographic focus shifted towards photojournalism. His growing interest in documentary photography led him to freelance for Life and Fortune magazines, covering significant social issues such as labor strife and civil rights issues.
In addition to his prolific images of Chicago and midwestern life in the 1930s and ‘40s, some of Coster’s more extensive projects are related to industrial architecture, including a detailed photo-documentary on the Tennessee Valley Authority Dam Project. Coster also documented the impact of the Second World War on the home front, photographing the droves of women joining the war effort in industrial jobs, automotive factories turned military vehicle manufacturers, and pep rallies and parades.
In 1946, László Moholy-Nagy, famed painter, photographer, and professor in the Bauhaus school, recognized Coster as a great social photographer and invited him to lecture on documentary photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago during the “New Vision in Photography” seminar. Coster would return to the Institute of Design again in 1950-51 and in 1960, lecturing on similar themes of photojournalism.
After leaving an indelible mark on the world of photography, Gordon Coster ceased taking photographs in 1964 and retired in 1982. His work is included in the permanent collections of institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, SFMoMA, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and the International Center of Photography.