Lot 3
  • 3

Alvin Langdon Coburn

250,000 - 350,000 USD
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  • Alvin Langdon Coburn
  • Signed and dated in pencil on the mount
  • Gelatin silver print
  • 10 7/8 x 8 1/8 inches
mounted to deckle-edged paper, signed in pencil on the mount, mounted again to tan board, titled and dated in pencil on the reverse, framed, 1917


The photographer to Leonard Arundale

Private collection, circa 1965

Thereafter, by agent to a private collection

Christie's New York, 27 April 2004, Sale 1367, Lot 249

Private collection, San Francisco

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, 2008


Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer: An Autobiography (New York, 1966), pl. 54

Richard Cork, Vorticism and Its Allies (London, 1974), p. 103

Man Ray: L’occhio e il suo doppio (Rome, 1975), p. 83

Frank DiFrederico, 'Alvin Langdon Coburn and the Genesis of Vortographs,' History of Photography, Vol. 2, No. 4, October - December 1987, p. 293


This photograph is on double-weight paper with a matte surface. It retains Coburn's full original presentation: mounted first to a sheet of off-white deckle-edge paper, and mounted again to sturdy buff-colored board. Coburn has signed the initial paper mount in pencil below the right portion of the image, and has titled and dated it in pencil in the lower left of the reverse of the second mount. The photograph's pure abstract composition, its superb print quality, and its double-mounted presentation make it an ideal example from Coburn's Vortograph series from the late nineteen-teens. The photograph is essentially in excellent condition. It shows very slight age-appropriate silvering in the peripheral dark areas. When examined closely in high raking light a faint superficial mark can be seen at the left portion of the top edge, possibly due to original retouching. A pair of very faint linear scuffs can be made out in the central dark area of the print when it is examined very closely. The above-mentioned condition issues are insignificant, and do nothing to diminish the powerful impact of this remarkable photograph.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

This surprising and dynamic image is one of a small series created by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1916 and 1917 that are generally recognized as the first abstract photographs. An American, Coburn was a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, and was hailed by Stieglitz as the movement’s ‘youngest star.’  While living in London, however, Coburn was swept up in the Vorticist movement, and saw in it an opportunity to move the art of photography forward.  Working with an assembly of three mirrors, and a selection of crystals and prisms, Coburn created entirely novel images that he dubbed Vortographs. Like the other proprietary ‘’graphs’  that were to follow in the coming decade—Rayographs and Schadographs, among them—the term Vortograph embodied not only a particular photographic technique, but an expression of one photographer’s visual imagination. 

Spearheaded by the artist Wyndham Lewis and promoted by the American expatriate poet and critic Ezra Pound, Vorticism was the English response to the continental Futurist and Cubist movements.  A group exhibition in London in 1914 put the movement before the public, and a series of manifestos were published in Lewis’s graphically precocious journal BLAST.  In broad terms, Vorticist art is non-representational, vigorously geometric, and frequently characterized by dynamic diagonally-oriented compositions.  In this respect, Coburn’s Vortographs are very much of a piece with work by Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, and other of the movement’s artists. 

Coburn’s introduction to Vorticism came through Pound, whom the photographer met in 1913 while making portraits for his book More Men of Mark.  Through Pound, Coburn also gained access to the London avant-garde. Coburn, keenly attuned to Vorticism and its parallels in Europe, felt that photographers needed to incorporate new ideas into their work in order for photography to remain relevant.  In an article entitled ‘The Future of Pictorial Photography,’ published in the 1916 edition of Photograms of the Year, Coburn asked,

‘. . .why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?  Why, I ask you earnestly, need we go on making commonplace little exposures of subjects that may be sorted into groups of landscapes, portraits, and figure studies?  Think of the joy of doing something which it would be impossible to classify, or to tell which was the top and which the bottom!’

It was with this sense of adventure that Coburn embarked upon his series of Vortographs.  The first images he made with his Vortoscope were of Pound, in which the poet is attended by reflections of himself and various angular, abstract shapes.  These set the stage for the fully non-representational photographs to come.  Coburn’s inclination to abstraction, hinted at in earlier images (e.g., The Octopus, 1912; Station Roofs, Pittsburgh, 1910) is fully realized in the Vortographs.  As Keith Davis writes, Coburn’s Vortographs

‘represent the first body of artistic photographs in history to embrace total abstraction. . . the best of these Vortographs are quite remarkable: boldly composed, mysteriously unreal, and intensely vibrant with light and energy. . . These images are, most importantly, about the idea of form and power, and come as close as any ever made to giving pictorial expression to thought itself’ (An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital, second edition, p. 118).  

The print offered here was originally given by Coburn to his close friend Leonard Arundale, with whom he shared an abiding interest in Freemasonry.