Visiting Sir Elton John’s Dazzling Modernist Photography Collection

Visiting Sir Elton John’s Dazzling Modernist Photography Collection

In 1990, Sir Elton John got sober and unknowingly began collecting one of the most significant private collections of photography in the world. He has collaborated with the Tate Modern to exhibit an extraordinary collection of photographs from the classic modernist period of 1920-1960.  On a cold and wet Thursday afternoon in London, I went to see The Radical Eye exhibition for myself, and it didn’t disappoint.

Within four gallery spaces, around 150 photographs from his impressive collection are hung on tall, deep blue or grey walls, in overly elaborate gold and silver frames. He may have begun his collection simply because of a fascination with the medium of photography as an art form, but fast-forward 26 years, and it’s clear to see his influences now stem from a deep understanding of photography’s pioneers throughout this period.

One of Irving Penn’s portraits of Sir Elton is front and center upon entry, a surreal take on the musical legend created by Penn shifting the camera during exposure. The rest of the first room is an overview of the exhibition, displaying signature pieces across portraiture, surrealism, still life, social documentary, and street photography. The Tate Modern’s presentation of this astonishing body of work is to be commended. Genres and sub-genres are well defined on the walls, as are typical traits to look out for in the works of Irving, Man Ray, Paul Outerbridge, and their peers. This makes the exhibition engaging for the casual observer, but also provides more in depth information for the cultured patron.

It truly feels like an exhibition worthy of a second and a third visit, as it seems like each visit will engage you in a different way. On this visit, it was Irving Penn’s “Corner Portraits, 1948” that consumed much of my time in the gallery. These are a collection of portraits taken between two angled walls of notable characters including Noel Coward, Joe Louis, and Salvador Dalí. Penn’s thought process was to see how his subjects would react to the confined space, and observed their confidence and a safety in the space by having these walls to lean on whilst modeling for his shot.

These bear a stark contrast to the Man Ray surrealist artists portrait collection on the opposite wall from the 1920s. I found myself walking back and forth across the space looking for differences in the approach toward the art of portrait photography from these pre and post-second World War eras.

As the technology in film rolls and portable cameras developed, photography as a surreal art form came into its own. There are some wonderful examples of this in the collection, particularly Josef Breitenbach’s “Forever and Ever Paris, 1938” and Frederick Sommer’s “Max Ernst, 1946,” which has such detail that it almost lifts off the gelatin silver print on which much of the collection is printed.

Another personal was favorite piece was “Migrant Mother, 1936,” by Dorothy Lange. In this poignant social commentary of Great Depression rural America, a beautiful woman cradles a baby in her arms with two children resting on her shoulders, facing away. Her beauty is striking in what must have been a tragic era. Elton John explains how every time he walks past this piece in his home, his perception of her expression changes.

In a world of throwaway photography, this is a chance to admire the pioneers of the medium who were inspired by their limitations, not restricted by them. It raises questions about oneself as a photographer, the types of questions that I feel will inspire new angles on various genres in my own work. A huge credit must go to Sir Elton John and David Furnish for releasing some of their collection for a limited period and to the Tate Modern for presenting it in a way that pulls you through the lens. I will certainly be back.

Images used with permission of The Tate Press Office​

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I'm surprised at how small a lot of the photographs are. There is an interesting article in Source magazine this month on how the Tate Modern selects exhibitions and how patrons are involved. It was all about how the Tate decides and not the patrons but I wasnt overly convinced. The patrons have a vested interest in pushing photographers from their collections into big exhibitions.