Elton John’s Radical Eye

“The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen”, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. For a few days in London, we could see the art collection of David Bowie at Sotheby’s (1-10 Nov) and the photography collection of Elton John. I was unimpressed by the former’s but ooh I loved Elton John’s collection of modernist photography!

The title, The Radical Eye, which could be the radical eye of the artist or the camera lens, originates from artist László Moholy-Nagy, who asserted that photography could radically change not just what, but how we see. Stieglitz and Steichen pioneered the modernist photography movement, incorporating abstraction and accentuated angles and perspectives of architecture, bodies and objects.  


Alexander Rodchenko Shukov Tower 1920 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection 

Co-curator of the exhibition Shoair Mavlian mentioned 8,000 fine art photographs in Sir Elton John’s collection, narrowed down to 200 modernist vintage prints, i.e., from 1920-50. Tate Modern shows them in the same frames displayed in Elton John’s Atlanta flat, unlike the typical neutral frames used to display photography. 


Mavlian revealed that Elton John’s collection benefited from some art advisory, although he did not have an advisor when acquiring photographs from Man Ray. The exhibition shows portraits of contemporaries, works of important provenance, such as the “Underwater Swimmer” by André Kertész, which inspired Hockney for his swimming pool paintings, and exceptional homoerotic nudes by George Platt Lynes.

André Kertész Underwater Swimmer 1917 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection © Estate of André Kertész

Artists’ interventions in the dark room are also displayed. Cropping, distorting, experimental portraits and representations of stand-still objects became subjects in their own right. There is also striking documentary photography by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans during the Great Depression – both of whom are artists that Elton John collected avidly.


Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother 1936 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection runs until 7 May 2017 at Tate Modern.

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