Blog / Photography in Vorticism

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By Chrissy
Philip Rylands masterfully explained the intricate and complex Voriticist movement at the Annual Semans Lecture last Thursday. Rylands is director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, which will host “The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-18” in spring 2011. A wealth of knowledge, he discussed everything from the evolution of Vorticism to artists’ personal lives.

I was particularly struck by Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographs from the Vorticist movement, because they are considered the first example of abstract photography. After the lecture, Rylands said, “Some photo buffs are shocked that it wasn’t Paul Strand, but these were the first.”

Coburn’s photos were actually termed “Vortographs” by poet Ezra Pound. They were created using a mirrored device Coburn developed, called a “Vortoscope,” that he attached to his camera to make his images abstract. Much like a kaleidoscope on the end of his lens, the Vortoscope helped Coburn create photography unlike anything before seen. His new type of technologically-enhanced photograph allowed Coburn to push past limitations of established photography groups.

Despite hazy boundaries between the creative actions and products of the two major photography schools of Coburn’s time, there had been a long-standing feud between the photo “purists,” who thought photography should be “un-manipulated,” and Pictorialists, who claimed photographers should take creative liberties as they saw fit. Coburn’s work went beyond the boundaries of both limiting parties, helping push the field of photography forward and showing that photography could be relevant to modern art movements.

Coburn is famous for saying, in “The Future of Pictorial Photography,” that, “If it is not possible to be ‘modern’ with the newest of all arts, we better bury our black boxes, and go back to scratching with a sharp bone in the manner of our remote Darwinian ancestors.” This article, by Coburn, can be found in Photography Essays and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography, by Beaumont Newhall (205-207).

Although he received little support for his Vortographs and thus had a short stint in the Vorticist movement, evidenced by the fact that his Vortographs are all from from c.1917, Coburn indisputably expanded the possibilities of photography. He encouraged the “newest of all art forms” to stay contemporary and created a fresh platform for future photographers.

Image: Alvin Langdon Coburn, “Vortograph.”  c.1917. Gelatin silver print. Collection of George Eastman House, Rochester.

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