What is a Vorticism?

Vorticism started in 1914 in London and encompassed sculpture, photography, painting, woodcuts and graphic design. The movement, which was a ‘response to French Cubism and Italian Futurism’ (1) was led by Wyndham Lewis and named by Ezra Pound. The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn first exhibited his vortographs in 1917. I’m a huge fan of Coburn, and that’s how I originally learnt about vortographs.

All I could find out when I first started to research this was that Coburn was using an arrangement of mirrors, like a kaleidoscope, to create his images. If you look at Coburn’s vortographs you can see two slightly different types of images. One style looks like it has fractured the planes of the image into star or triangular shapes.

Vortograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn

I think these are true vortographs made with an arrangement of mirrors like so….

Taped triangular arrangement of mirrors that measure 2 x 6 inches

The other type of vortograph Coburn made looks like this:

Ezra Pound by Alvin Langdon Coburn

I wonder if this image of Ezra Pound by Coburn is made by using a stack of mirrors instead of a triangular arrangement? I have experience of making different types of vortograph myself; the only way I can think of to achieve this style is if it was made using a stacked arrangement of mirrors.

Star Vortograph
Star Vortograph
Piano Keyboard Vortograph

To make my prism (pictured above), I used 4 mirrors which I had cut at a local glaziers. They each measure 2 inches by 6 inches. If you get mirrors cut, remember to ask for the edges to be smoothed as you’ll be handling them quite a bit.

They need to be taped together to make a prism. The sides of the mirrors give really nice effects, so having a side which is thicker works well if you want to capture that, so add the extra mirror to one side. I also added thin copper tape to the sides of my mirrors at one end to help give a more defined pattern. If I don’t want the pattern I just flip the mirrors around – they don’t interfere with the image if they’re at the lens end.

Top left is where the thicker mirror edges are. You can see the copper tape showing up which makes the triangular nature of the images clearer.

I found that the technique works best with a wide angle lens; if you zoom in you can loose the effect. I’ve tried several different camera and lens combinations – all work, including an iPhone which is much easier to work with and I don’t have worries about my lenses getting scratched. But essentially it’s just experimenting to see what works. There isn’t a clever set up as such – just hold the mirror in front of the lens until you see the image you want. A tripod would help for this as it’s a bit fiddly. I’ve found that taking a ‘normal’ image and then printing it and taking the image again through the mirrors works well, or otherwise taking a vortograph of an image displayed on a computer monitor. If you look at some of my other work you’ll see the colours that are produced when using this technique of photographing a monitor or iPhone screen using a prism.

(Eyes, buses, Union Flags, New York and yes, that is Brendan Fraser top left)

To see how the planes fracture it helps to use a subject that has strong lines as you get a more pronounced effect.

Stairs, The British Museum

I started using vortographs to represent the fracturing of the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Many of my original references will be in the initial work I did for an assignment on my photography degree which I will add to this site soon.  

I didn’t find many photographers using the technique now, if you use it after reading this post I’d love to hear from you and see how it went!

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