Coster is an American original who led a distinguished four-decade, multi-faceted career in photography beginning in the mid-1920s. With versatility and resourcefulness, Coster moved seamlessly between different photographic genres and enjoyed a long, successful career in advertising, industrial photography, and photojournalism.
Growing up in Baltimore, Coster parlayed an intense passion for his hobby into a livelihood. While a member of the Baltimore Camera Club in the 1920s, he made a name for himself when his modernistic images were accepted for exhibition in important international photographic salons. He was especially proud of his Bauhaus inspired “Shadow of the Washington Monument” (1925) reproduced in the rotogravure section of the Baltimore Sun. As a precocious 19-year-old, he was producing images that were on the cutting edge of what was then considered new in photography.
Coster initially found work in the photo-illustration studio of a local Baltimore department store. In the 1920s, photographs replaced drawing in advertising illustration. Coster seized this opportunity by moving to New York where he landed a job photographing for the prestigious Underwood & Underwood studios headed by Lejaren Hiller. Coster secured his place in the field by creating innovative advertising and industrial photo-illustrations. His pictures appeared in newspapers, magazines and catalogs, selling to the American consumer everything from household appliances to fashion, cosmetics, and food.
Coster relocated to Chicago in 1930 where he founded a mid-western branch of Underwood & Underwood Studios. He established his independence in 1936 by opening his own studio in Chicago where, for the next six years, he did much of the photography for Marshall Field Company and other large Chicago institutions.
His experiments during much of the 1930s gradually shifted his focus towards journalism. This evolution ultimately led Coster to follow documentary photography as a career path and he freelanced for Life and Fortune magazines. His early social documentary photographs of labor strife and civil rights issues reflected a personal and emotional dedication to the concerns and welfare of his fellow man.
Some of his more extensive projects are dedicated to the American life of the mid-west. There, he produced a series on wheat farming and a detailed photo-documentary on the Tennessee Valley Authority Dam Project of the late 1930s. During the Second World War, Coster photographed the impact of combat on the home front. He saw and recorded automotive factories transforming into manufacturers of military vehicles, women manning factories, pep rallies, and bake sales organizing in support of the war.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy offered Coster an opportunity to lecture on documentary photography to the students of the Institute of Design in Chicago during the 1946 “New Vision in Photography” seminar. He continued to lecture in 1950–51 and again in 1960, focusing his classes on socially-oriented themes.
Starting in the late 1940s, he freelanced for Time, Fortune, Holiday, Ladies Home Journal, and Scientific American. He ceased making photographs in 1964 and eventually retired in 1982. Gordon Coster left his mark on the world of photography in a successful lifelong career that paralleled the changing face of the medium in the first half of the twentieth century.