Front / Recto

  • Title Vortograph
  • Negative Date 1916–17
  • Print Date 1916–20
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 11 1/8 x 8 3/8" (28.2 x 21.2 cm)
    Mount 12 5/16 × 9 1/8" (31.2 × 23.1 cm)
  • Place Taken London
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Grace M. Mayer Fund
  • MoMA Accession Number 1656.2001
  • Copyright © George Eastman House
  • Description

    Alvin Langdon Coburn recalled that the Vortographs he created in January 1917, including this one, were the “first purely abstract photographs.”[1] Of the tool used to create these images, Coburn wrote in his autobiography, “The instrument is composed of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle, and resembling to a certain extent the Kaleidoscope—and I think many of us can remember the delight we experienced with this scientific toy. The mirrors acted as a prism splitting the image formed by the lens into segments.”[2] The poet Ezra Pound, who had introduced Coburn to the short-lived London-based Vorticism movement, wrote, “The tool called vortoscope was invented late in 1916. Mr. Coburn had long desired to bring cubism or vorticism into photography. Only with the invention of a suitable instrument was this possible.”[3]

    Coburn used a camera with 9 by 12 centimeter (3 9/16 by 4 3/4 inch) nitrate roll film for his Vortographs. The photographic paper he selected has a matte surface, creating a slightly soft-focus image with warm highlight tone. Microscope examination and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis confirm that the paper has no Baryta layer; the velvetlike surface texture is the result of gelatin emulsion covering rough paper fibers. The warm highlight color is created by the hue of the paper fiber.

    —Hanako Murata 

    [1] Alvin Langdon Coburn, Helmut Gernsheim, and Alison Gernsheim, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer: An Autobiography with over 70 Reproductions of His Works (New York: Dover Publications, 1978), p. 104.

    [2] Ibid., p. 102.

    [3] Ezra Pound, Pavannes and Divisions (New York: Knopf, 1918), p. 251.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type Mount (original)
  • Marks and Inscriptions Signed in pencil on mount recto, bottom right: Alvin Langdon Coburn [underlined].
  • Provenance The artist; given to Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Arundale [1]; by inheritance to the grandson of Leonard Arundale [2]; sold through Christie's London (sale 4832, lot 101) to One Bond Masterworks (Michael Senft), New York, October 29, 1992 [3]; purchased by Thomas Walther, 1993 [4]; purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 5. Leonard Arundale and Coburn met through the Freemasons via a mutual interest in photography. The Arundales became close friends with Coburn and his wife.
    [2] Ibid.
    [3] Ibid.
    [4] Ibid.; and One Bond Masterworks invoice, April 11, 1993.


  • Surface Sheen Matte
  • Techniques Mount
    Retouching (additive)
  • PTM
    View of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Unknown
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis No fiber data available
  • Material Techniques Developing-out paper
    Baryta-less paper
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: Al, P, S, Cl, Ca, Cr, Mn, Fe, Zn, Sr, Ag, Ba, Pb
    • Mount: Al, Si, P, S, K, Ca, Ti, Mn, Fe, Zn, Sr, Pb

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, Si, P, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, Cr, Mn, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Mn, Fe, Zn, Sr, Ag, Pb

In Context

Historical Exhibitions

  • The Camera Club, London. Vortographs and Paintings by Alvin Langdon Coburn. February 8–28, 1917.

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