The invention of photography allowed people to see the world through an entirely new ‘eye’. The still image allowed viewers to linger over the same scene for hours, giving people the chance to absorb more than just what initially caught the eye.
The Modernist photographers were fascinated by this notion and opening up the world to another way of seeing; opening the scene to be viewed in many different ways through the eye of the camera lens.
Sir Elton John also became obsessed with this notion in the early 1990s. Just before he overcame an alcohol addiction, he sold off his entire art collection bar four paintings. After he became sober in 1990, Elton John was introduced to photography by David Fey who showed him a selection of fashion portraits. He was instantly enthralled and began collecting, now calling photography the ‘love of his life’ in terms of the art form.
The Rocket Man’s collection now spans to over 8,000 photos, most of which are displayed in his 18,000sqft apartment in Atlanta, bought purely to display his collection. But now he has lent the Tate Modern nearly 150 of his prints, all of which are original prints from over 70 artists.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a vanity project, this collection shows a clear knowledge and passion for the photography art form, with the only inkling that the prints belong to Sir Elton is the ostentatious, often gilded frames that also belong to the singer-songwriter and the portraits by Irving Penn on entrance.
The collection on show gives a comprehensive insight into the classic Modernist period of the 1920s to 50s, giving amateurs a great introduction to the medium as well as giving photography aficionados the opportunity to view some of the world’s most influential prints such as Man Ray’s seminal ‘glass tears’.
From Man Ray’s instantly recognisable portraits of influential artists from Salvador Dali, Picasso and Matisse to the inception of street photography in the early 1930s, the exhibition leads visitors on a journey through the development of photographic technology as well as the innovation of the artists to manipulate the medium to create pieces of art.
The exhibition begins with portraits. Photography allowed artists to capture an accurate likeness of subjects never seen before, but Modernist artists used this to push the boundaries of pose, composition and emotion. Salvador Dali’s aggressive ‘man-spread’ and intense stare photographed by Irving Penn in 1947 appears to capture Dali’s raw emotion, leaving the viewer thinking they’d rather not cross him in a dark alley.
But it’s in the experimentation room where the Modernist photographer’s true innovation shows. Previously considered ‘mistakes’ such as distortions and double exposures are harnessed to create ‘otherworldly’ images, long before the invention of Photoshop. With Hubert Bayer’s ‘Humanly Possible’ self-portrait where a portion of his arm is missing the standout piece.
Leica’s invention of the first camera to use 35mm film had a huge impact, making cameras truly portable. This is reflected in the collection of ‘street photography’. Robert Frank’s couple taking a selfie on the Place de la Concorde, Paris in 1949 epitomises the notion of photography capturing a moment in time as well as opening up the scene for viewers to see more than just meets the eye.
From being drawn immediately to the couple, the eye can’t help to be taken up the bright white gravel to the top of the road, seeing the shadows spotted across the image to the detail of the leaves on the trees, and suddenly the scene is so much more than just a couple.
But the true standout in the collection is Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans’ Great Depression series. ‘Migrant Mother’ hits you as hard as if you were stood right next to her, experiencing her pain. There is an intriguing contrast between Lange and Evans’ presentation of the period, with Lange choosing to omit names to use the portraits to reflect the mass suffering whilst Evans names his subjects, drawing the hardship to a more personal level.
And I could go on and on. This exhibition and Sir Elton John’s collection is impressive. Every photograph has an immense historical and artistic significance. The Tate didn’t start collecting photography until 2009 so would have little opportunity to show such a collection without showing private collections such as John’s. This is an exhibition not to be missed.
The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is at the Tate Modern, London until 21st May 2017. Tickets are £16.50 and advance booking is recommended if you’re visiting at the weekend.