Four prints of this image (two reversed) are included in the major bequest of works by Coburn at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester.
When Coburn exhibited his 'Vortographs' at the Camera Club, London in February 1917, he created a sensation. It was the first exhibition of truly abstract photographs: images which reduced the subject to the essential elements of light and form. Controversy erupted. The pages of contemporary journals filled with spirited reviews and letters of support and criticism and included an ongoing battle of words between Coburn and his former ally, Frederick Evans, in the British Journal of Photography.
Already an internationally respected figure, Coburn had succesful one-man exhibitions at the Royal Photographic Society, London in 1906 and the Photo-Secession Gallery, New York in 1907 and 1909. He had been a leading member of elite and influential Pictorialist movements including The Linked Ring Brotherhood and the Photo-Secession. Moving away from Pictorialism, Coburn strove to involve photography in the rapidly changing artistic climate of the early 20th century. His 1912 series of views of New York looking down from skyscrapers involved a conscious attempt to alter the perception of perspective, a concept adopted from the work of the Cubists.
In 1916, he published an essay in Photograms of the Year titled The Future of Pictorial Photography. In this he argued vehemently against conventional representation and the limitation of photography to subject categories which could be easily classified. He proposed an exhibition of exclusively 'abstract' photographs.
In the same year, Coburn made a portrait of Wyndham Lewis, leader of the avant-garde English Vorticist movement, which borrowed elements from both Futurism and Cubism. At the end of 1916 he invented an assemblage of mirrors, which, placed between the lens and the subject, reflected and split the image. Ezra Pound christened the instrument the 'Vortescope' and the resulting images 'Vortographs'. In his introduction to Coburn's exhibition catalogue, amid barbed comment comparing the qualities of photography and painting, Pound wrote In vortography he [Coburn] accepts the fundamental principles of vorticism, and those of vorticist painting in so far as they are applicable to the work of the camera. He continues The vorticist principle is that a painting is an expression by means of an arrangement of form and colour in the same way that a piece of music is an expression by means of an arrangement of sound...........the medium of the vortographer is practically limited to form (shapes on a surface) and to light and shade; to the peculiar varieties in lightness and darkness which belong to the technique of the camera. He proclaimed THE CAMERA IS FREED FROM REALITY 1
1 Pound, Coburn et al, Vortographs and Paintings by Alvin Langdon Coburn, London: The Camera Club, 1917