Between 1903-1909 many of Coburn's photogravures were published in Camera Work - the exquisite fine art photographic magazine that was edited and published by Alfred Stieglitz from 1903 -1917. In 1906 Coburn had a one-man show at the Royal Photographic Society in London. The show made Coburn well known in England and from that time he became a leading figure in the recognition of photography as a fine art. His photographs of men and cities were equally distinguished by his exploring originality of approach; he was one of the first to draw attention to the purely pictorial possibilities of patterns of nature seen under the microscope; and in 1917 he showed the first abstract photographs, which he called ‘Vortographs' - from ‘Vorticist', the term devised by Ezra Pound. In 1907 George Bernard Shaw considered the twenty-four year old Coburn the greatest photographer in the world. Coburn's sensibility was formed by the people around him that were at least a generation older that himself, artists who had direct links with Aestheticism (Maeterlinck and F. Holland Day), the Symbolist movement (Henry James Jr. and Arthur Symons) and the socialism of William Morris and Ford Madox Brown (Edward Carpenter and Frank Brangwyn).
The psychological/spiritual basis of Coburn's life was committed to hidden or ideal philosophies. However, it is possible to identify certain phases in his life as of special significance. The years 1900-1905 were his apprenticeship; 1905-10 was his Symbolist period, in which he made his great contribution to photography; 1916-23 - years that Coburn himself described as wasted - saw him in confusion, dabbling in astrology and the occult although the Vortographs were from this era and were extremely important in the development of formalism and modernism in photography. The years 1923-30 was the period when he became completely devoted to the life of the Universal Order, a comparative religious group that had begun in 1911 as the Hermetic Truth Society and the Order of Ancient Wisdom. The photographs Coburn made after 1930 were heavily informed by the abstract, and were similar to those produced by Minor White during much the same era.