A broken mirror, edges jagged, would be a fitting metaphor for the photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn, taken early last century. He was smashing convention, refracting reality, elevating partial reflections over traditional images. It's not just a metaphor, though: the pictures he took in this period – vortographs, as they became known – were shot through the prism of three pieces of glass, splitting the image into segments, creating weird and wonderful distortions. "Why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried?" Coburn wrote. "Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved?" His words might seem naïve when read from the perspective of this century, with our countless ways of seeing. But this was 1916, and Coburn's thoughts were radical.
Next month, Tate Britain opens an exhibition celebrating the Vorticists, that fleeting movement of which Coburn was a part. The avant garde collective, which exploded into being in London in 1914 and lasted four years, was spearheaded by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, who bestowed the name "Vorticism" upon the movement. A literary and artistic endeavour that praised the hard forms of the machine, it came hot on the heels of Futurism, Cubism, and post-Impressionism – but pitched itself as a rebellion against everything that had gone before. Vorticism encapsulated not just visual art, but literary expression too: the group published two thick magazines called BLAST. Radical in typography and content, BLAST had long lists of things they "blessed" or"blasted".
It was in this world that Coburn, an American émigré from Boston, found himself when he met Ezra Pound and his cutting-edge creatives in London in 1913. The glass Coburn used in the process was said to be a broken shaving mirror of Pound's; it was, of course, Pound who bestowed upon Coburn's work the title Vortographs – it was Pound, too, who wrote the introduction to his exhibition catalogue for his 1917 exhibition in the Camera Club in London, considered the first presentation of abstract photography. Pound even wrote to his own father, proclaiming that, "Coburn and I have invented Vortography. The idea is one no longer need photograph what is in front of the camera, but can use one's element of design". The exhibition was a sensation, if not a critical success.
But ironically, Vorticism's allegiance to "machine aesthetic" was its downfall. As the Great War progressed, the extreme violence facilitated by the machine gun marred the artists' conceptual theories of beauty with a reality too painful to stomach. It seems that Coburn's photographs were already attempting to shake free from the hard-edged realities the movement so admired, predicting the fading idealism behind Vorticism, as much as reflecting it.
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, is at Tate Britain from 14 June to 4 September. See tate.org.uk