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
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
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.
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