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A vortograph

Vortographs: The Geometrical Fragmentation of Reality


With his vortographs, Alvin Langdon Coburn was one of the fathers of modern photography.

As with the majority of the artistic movements of the 20th century, vorticism was an impetuous one destined to change the esthetic and social order of the time. The term vortex, probably inspired by the futurist Boccioni, referred to the whirlwind of emotions and expressive power that the artists attempted to unleash in their works.

Reality made its appearance in vorticist works transformed by the whirlwind of subjectivity: architecture, objects, portraits; all was altered by entering into contact with the fractal eye of the vorticists. Wyndham Lewis, the principal founder of the movement together with the poet Ezra Pound, gathered powers such as T.S. Eliot and artists such as Gaudier Brzeska and Rebecca West with the magazine Blast. Vorticism was the only, and short-lived, artistic avant-garde that emerged from England.

A vortograph

When Boston-born Alvin Langdon Coburn arrived in England his fame as a landscape and portrait photographer was fully consolidated. He started his career early, receiving a Kodak camera for his eighth birthday. Once in London, the indisputable center of artistic activity of the time, his talent would make him one of the most outstanding photographers of the late 19th century.

But it was the overwhelming inertia at the forefront of artistic movements that pushed Coburn to produce his riskiest and most visionary works. Contact with cubism and futurism made him feel the need to give a free rein to his expression. In vorticism, the product of cubism and futurism, Coburn found the perfect medium to free himself from his formal anxieties and step away from the already decadent pictorial tradition.

A vortograph

Langdon Coburn’s vortographs were the result of his close collaboration with Ezra Pound. With the support of the poet, Coburn developed an apparatus called a vortoscope. Using a set of mirrors, the apparatus fragmented reality in the same way as the paintings of Wyndham Lewis. The resulting images hold great expressive power in which reality is altered to suit the internal needs of the artist, and of their personal vortex. Like a mineral structure, objects acquire a geometric and kaleidoscopic appearance, almost completely erasing the forms of the original image.

Coburn placed himself at the forefront of the photographic avant-garde with his vortographs. At the outbreak of World War I he abandoned his experiments and retired to a monastery. The vorticist movement disappeared after three years of ephemeral existence and reality imposed itself en bloc.

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