Alvin Langdon Coburn is widely regarded as having produced the worlds first completely abstract photographs. His Vortographs displayed amongst The Vorticists show at Tate Britain are only a small part of his output as a photographer but are hugely significant.
Alvin Langdon Coburn is known as a key figure in the development of American pictorialism and was a successful photographer famous for his portraits of the great and good. His book – Men of Mark 1913 included artists and statesmen from Europe and America including Roosevelt and Matisse. In New York he became pre-occupied with photographs of soaring buildings and new metropolitan vistas. His photograph The Octopus, New York 1912 is the urban view made abstract in this case a park shot from an elevated position, something that was easy to do in the new modern architecture of Manhattan. Indeed this type of change in approach was increasingly interesting Coburn.
“Why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional represenatation and attempt something fresh and untried?.....Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved.”
|Vortograph 1917. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.|
When Coburn met Ezra Pound in London they began collaborating and began with a portrait of Ezra using multiple exposures. (Thr results he described as “Cubist”) This process moved forward rapidly and soon Pound said “Coburn and I have invented Vortography. The idea is one no longer need photograph what is in front of the camera but can use ones element of design.”
They produced these ground breaking photographs using an combination of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle attached to the front of the lens. The objects he photographed were usually bits of wood and crystal.
The work was completed in 1916 and eighteen Vortographs were exhibited at the Camera Club in London in January 1917. The reaction was less than rapturous indeed it was mostly one of bewilderment and perplexity. Not surprising considering photography was still in its formative years and Vortographs would have broken a mould.
Coburns career subsequently slowly declined until the point where photography played little part in it. Coburn turned to mysticism and spirituality and Vortographs marked for him an increasing occupation with the interior world. In the history of photography they mark the beginning of a new chapter .
P.S. Observer article 19th June - Review of exhibition yet no mention of Vortographs in a long article. Disappointing.