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Alvin Langdon Coburn
British, 1882-1966

Vortograph, 1917
Gelatin silver print
Purchased 2005

What makes Coburn’s Vortograph a landmark image in 20th-century art is not only its fragmentation of a solid object into a gem-like array of exploding facets, but also its propulsion of photography on to a new plane of abstract expression. By using a hand-crafted arrangement of three mirrors (apparently the remnants of poet Ezra Pound’s broken shaving mirror) surrounding his camera lens, Coburn transformed the crystal specimens into a complex cluster of intersecting planes and shafts of light.

A year before he made his series of Vortographs, Coburn published an article in which he challenged his readers to consider a radically new application of photography to the making of art, one that would “throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untriedand even be “impossible to classify, or to tell which was the top and which was the bottom!”

Made between October 1916 and January 1917, these photographs are a result of collaboration between Coburn and Pound, both of whom were members of the Vorticist movement.