'Why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried? Why should not its subtle rapidity be realized in study of movement? Why not repeated successive exposures of an object in motion on the same plate? Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved?...I suggest that an exhibition be organized of 'Abstract Photography'; that in the entry form it be distinctly stated that no work will be admitted in which the interest of subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary...it is my hope that photography may fall in line with all the other arts, and with her infinite possibilities, do things stranger and more fascinating than the most fantastic dreams.' - A.L. Coburn ('The Future of Pictorial Photography', Photograms of the Year, 1916, pp. 23-24)
In 1917 Coburn faced his own challenge, producing a series of Vortographs using his invention, the Vortoscope - a device made of three mirrors which acted like a prism. An exhibition at The Camera Club of London opened that year and included a catalogue with an 'anonymous' introduction by the poet Ezra Pound. Pound declared, 'The Camera is Freed From Reality'.
Vorticism in painting and poetry had already been established by Coburn's contemporaries Wyndham Lewis and Pound. His Vortographs were a combination of many forces including Cubism, Futurism and Modernism. As early as his 1912 'The House of a Thousand Windows', Coburn began to express his modernist, Cubist vision more fully. Exhibitions such as the seminal 1913 Armory Show, which introduced America to European modernism, as well as those at Stieglitz's gallery '291' of works by John Marin and Henri Matisse, exposed Coburn to many remarkable influences. His friendships with Dow, White and particularly Weber and later appreciation for Vorticism and the realization that photography had to evolve if it were to survive and stand as an equal beside the other arts, lead to these revolutionary works of 1917.
While Coburn's Vortographs free the camera from recording the recognizable, they also make reference to the real world as seen in lot 250. As successful as the Vortograph in lot 249, which bursts forth with a dynamic energy, lot 250 is a delicate flower-like composition of elements, which although identifiable, are essentially a construction of form and light.
Although informed by and named after the Vorticist movement, these works were Coburn's daring venture to the edge of creativity and against the norm of the times. They introduced to the world one of the first significant bodies of abstract, cubist photographs and influenced many later generations of photographers.
As Aaron Scharf reminds us in his book Art and Photography, Coburn was a pioneer in many senses and his controversial Vortographs predate not only Christian Schad's 'Schadographs' from 1918 but also Moholy-Nagy's photograms and Man Ray's 'Rayographs' of the early 1920s. (Scharf, p. 299) Coburn later recalled 'They were, I believe, the first deliberately abstract photographs ever to be made, and that they shocked the conventional members of the Camera Club was only to be expected.' ('Photographic Adventures', The Photographic Journal, May 1962, p. 155)
One early print of this image (RPS 9792) is included in The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford. Two later prints of this image, made in the 1950s, are included in the collection of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester.