Sir Elton’s jaw-dropping photo collection
Last few days to see Elton John's personal collection of Modernist early 20th century photography
Sir Elton John is not known for his understated taste. Remember how he arrived at his 50th birthday in a van to accommodate a giant wig topped with a galleon and his 15-foot feather train?
You might then expect his art collection to be a little on the garish side but err no – not when it comes to photography at any rate – beauty, elegance, subtlety, and all in black and white. Muddy Sussex has just been to see The Radical Eye at the Tate Modern (on till early May), which is comprised entirely of his personal collection of Modernist early 20th century photography and she’s raving about it – in fact all she is can say is ‘wow!’
As Sir Elton tells us in a short film in the exhibition (watch it here), he sold all but four of the paintings he owned the year before he got sober. Then fresh from rehab in 1990, a meeting with a friend sparked a new addiction – for photography. His collection concentrates on what is known as photography’s coming of age period, particularly American works, and comprises vintage prints from important photographers like Man Ray, Robert Frank, Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. In fact there are 70 artists and nearly 150 rare vintage prints.
The famous American depression image Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is among them. I felt star struck when I saw it in the flesh. That was in the documentary section, other themed areas cover objects, abstractions and portraits and experiments.
Not only are there works by famous people but plenty of them. Probably my favourite part was a series of portraits taken by Irving Penn of stars in a tight corner – Noel Coward, Spencer Tracey, Salvador Dali, boxer Joe Louis and more, all looking either confined by, or pushing from, the space. The same photographer took some surreal portraits of Elton John in 1997 that are displayed at the exhibition entrance.
There are a few tasteful homo-erotic pieces and there’s a fair bit of work from Surrealists. It was interesting to see how some artists had created unusual techniques in the days before Photoshop, flooding part of the images with light in the developing room, exposing objects against photographic paper to make a kind of X-ray, or moving the image as it developed to stretch faces – like an early Snapchat!
The film tracks round one of Elton John’s homes showing his collection covering several walls (amusingly juxtaposed at one point by a dressing table cluttered with colourful ostenatious knick knacks). You get a slightly voyueristic thrill afterwards seeing a couple of prints in the exhibition and going – ‘ooh they’re from above Elton’s bed ‘. One large display of miniatures is rehung in the Tate exactly as it is arranged in his office.
The frames too are worth a mention. I’m used to seeing photographs in anonymous surrounds but here they’ve used Elton’s own, mainly in silver and gold. This lends some extra personality to the collection. Several are gorgeous Art Deco frames, which pleased me greatly as it’s a favourite period of mine.
I have two lovely black and white prints on my own walls that were special birthday presents but let me tell you neither is an early Man Ray. The obvious value of Elton’s collection alone in quite staggering. As I overheard one young guy succinctly put it to his friend: “I bet his insurance company are sh*tting themselves!”
Outside there’s a fun photo booth where you can take pictures of yourself through surreal sliding filters. The exhibition is in the new extension to the Tate so if you have’t visited before make sure you head to the top floor where you great skyline views from a full wrap around balcony. Remember too the family-friendly Adventures in Moominland is on a bit further along in the Southbank Centre until 23 April.
The Radical Eye is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London, until 5 May. Entry to the exhibition is £16.50. There’s an audio guide for an extra £4.25. tate.org.uk