Lot 12
  • 12

Alvin Langdon Coburn

300,000 - 500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Alvin Langdon Coburn
  • Gelatin silver print
  • 10 5/8 x 8 1/16 inches
tipped to heavy paper, signed in pencil on the mount, 1917


The photographer to Leonard Arundale

By descent to a grandchild

Christie’s London, 29 October 1992, Sale 4832, Lot 102


Mike Weaver, Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer (Aperture, 1986), p. 73 (reversed)

Catalogue Note

The photograph offered here is from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortograph series of 1916 and 1917, generally acknowledged to be the first abstract photographs.  In London in the 1910s, Coburn became involved with Vorticism, a movement whose art was non-representational, vigorously geometric, and characterized by a dynamic angularity. Working with an assembly of mirrors and a selection of crystals and prisms, Coburn created entirely novel images that he called Vortographs.  Like other proprietary ‘’graphs’  that were to follow in the coming decade—Rayographs and Schadographs among them—the term Vortograph represented not only a particular photographic technique, but one photographer’s visual imagination. 

Spearheaded by the artist Wyndham Lewis and championed by the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, Vorticism was the English response to the continental Futurist and Cubist movements.  A group exhibition in London in 1914 and Lewis’s graphically precocious journal BLAST put the movement before the public.  Coburn’s Vortographs became the sole photographic iteration of the style. 

Coburn, always an independent voice in the photographic conversation of his day, felt that photographers must incorporate new ideas into their work in order for photography to progress.  In his article entitled ‘The Future of Pictorial Photography,’ published in the 1916 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!’

Fired with this sense of adventure, Coburn embarked upon the 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, present in earlier images such as Shadows and Reflections—Venice (see Lot 11), is fully realized in the Vortographs.  

Like the print of Shadows and Reflections—Venice, this mounted and signed Vortograph was originally given by Coburn to his close friend and fellow Freemason, Leonard Arundale.