Pamela Glasson Roberts
Alvin Langdon Coburn and the Vorticists
Born in Boston, Coburn was a frequent visitor to London from 1900–1912, eventually buying a house in Hammersmith, on the banks of the Thames amongst London's artistic community, in 1909. He first met & photographed Ezra Pound in October 1913. Pound moved in rather more avant-garde circles than his compatriot and introduced Coburn to the artist, author and critic, Percy Wyndham Lewis. The three men were of a similar age and representative of the influx of talented American-born writers and artists into London between 1894-1914.
When Pound and Wyndham Lewis published their ill-fated "Preliminary Announcement of the College of Arts"—a college for American postgraduates—in The Egoist of November 2, 1914, Coburn was listed as 'Photographer'. In 1916, he began to experiment with a more abstract form of photography although his earlier New York studies like The Octopus (1912) taken from a high vantage point and much influenced by the work of his friend, the American Cubist painter-poet Max Weber, had already indicated his interest in abstraction and objective design. In 1916, Coburn wrote of photography employing "the use of prisms for the splitting of images into segments ... and multiple exposures on the same plate" (The Future of Pictorial Photography. Photograms of the Year, 1916. London: Dawbarn&Ward), which led to his experimentation with a Vortoscope—an "instrument ... composed of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle, and resembling to a certain extent the Kaleidoscope .... The mirrors acted as a prism splitting the image formed by the lens into segments" (Alvin Langdon Coburn. An Autobiography, edited by Helmut & Alison Gernsheim. London: Faber&Faber, 1966). The camera lens was projected through the mirrors into random arrangements of pieces of wood and crystal, arranged on a glass table top. Although Coburn's involvement with Vorticism had only begun as the movement was in its death throes, he named the resulting images Vortographs—Vort(icist Phot)ographs.
In February 1917, he exhibited 18 Vortographs and 13 (earlier) paintings at the London Camera Club. Pound wrote the (anonymous) preface to the small catalogue. The work was received with almost universal incomprehension and some savagery in the photographic press although reactions mellowed as the exhibition travelled to other UK venues. For various reasons, Coburn did not progress his involvement with abstract photography, but in later years often professed this to be his best work.
Pamela Glasson Roberts is an independent researcher, writer and curator. From 1982–2001, she was the Curator of the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, England, which has a large collection of Coburn material donated by the photographer in 1930. In 1995 she was awarded a Museums' Exchange Programme bursary to work at the Library of Congress in Washington on an exhibition on Fred Holland Day which showed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as well as several European venues. In 2003, she was a Guest Scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 2005, she wrote the essays accompanying five limited edition portfolios of modern platinum/palladium prints made by 31 Studio in London from Alvin Langdon Coburn's original negatives held by George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.
Her book, The Genius of Color Photography; from the autochrome to the digital age, the most recent survey of the history of color photography, was published in 2007 by Carlton Books. Work in progress includes a book and exhibition on Alvin Langdon Coburn.