‘Tears,’ Man Ray, 1932 © The Elton John Collection The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From the Sir Elton John Collection

Tate Modern
Bankside, London SE1 9TG
November 10, 2016 – May 21, 2017

Elton John is a man known for many things (music, his work for gay rights, a vast collection of sparkly jackets), but being a fan of early twentieth century photography isn’t one of them. This is a great shame, as Sir Elton possesses one of the largest and most exciting collections of modernist photography in existence, which he has kindly loaned to London’s Tate Modern until the end of May.

Often referred to as photography’s “coming of age,” from the 1920s to the 1950s artists from Paul Strand to May Ray were working to transform the medium. Their experiments and innovations – from photograms to double exposures – raised the subject to a whole other level, inspiring future generations and still challenging the way we see the world today. The Radical Eye contains over 70 artists and 150 prints from this era, which Sir Elton has collected over the last 25 years, and includes icons such as Tina Modotti, John Hagemeyer and Alexsander Rodchenko.

‘Shukov Tower,’ Alexander Rodchenko, 1920, ©The Sir Elton John Photography Collection/A. Rodchenko & V. Stepanova Archive

The exhibition is divided into six sections – first up is the The Radical Eye, followed by Portraits, Experiments, Bodies and Documents, before finishing with Objectives, Perspectives and Abstractions – representing the varied, and often conflicting sides to modernist photography.

Some featured images are instantly recognisable, such as Imogen Cunningham’s intricate shots of flowers or Man Ray’s Tears (1932). In the Documents section you’ll find Dorethea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother (1936), a symbol of early photojournalism, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can’t identify Irving Penn’s famous portrait of a “manspreading” Salvador Dali.

‘Portrait of Salvador Dali,’ Irving Penn, 1917 © The Elton John Collection/The Irving Penn Foundation/PA

One thing that can be gleamed from The Radical Eye is that Sir Elton is truly passionate about photography, and this exhibition shows a side to the man previously unseen. In a short film created to accompany the exhibition, Sir Elton gives us a tour around his Atlanta home, where the walls are coated with up to 8000 photographic prints. In the clip he tells the audience that his admiration for photography began after a stint in rehab for alcohol addiction in the 1980s, and that he has only ever bought an image out of love – never for profit – a rarity in the modern art world. The collection is now so huge that it has its own director, curator and conservators to manage its welfare, and as his image anthology has grown, Sir Elton has educated himself in all manner of modernist thought and theory.

Whether a well-educated lover of modernist photography, or a newbie longing to learn more about the genre, The Radical Eye is an eclectic mix of the best and brightest the era has to offer.

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