Sir Elton John began collecting photographs upon leaving rehab in 1990. Since then he has amassed over 8,000, many of them modernist masterpieces. A good chunk of the collection is now on display at Tate Modern, including watershed works by Man Ray, Andre Kertész and Dorothea Lange, as well as those of lesser known but no less significant photographers like Piv van Os and Josef Breitenbach.
The exhibition charts how they reimagined traditional forms like portraits, still lifes, nudes and social documentary. Early photography tended to be static and literal, but rapid technological advances at the start of the 20th century, combined with the growing influence of avant-garde movements like dada and surrealism (photography, said Dalí, is “the recording of an unprecedented reality”), encouraged photographers to play with form, colour and perspective. The exhibition unearths the extensive technological trickery – double exposure, distortion and solarisation – pioneered by artists like Herbert Bayer and Berenice Abbot.
Man Ray’s works form the centrepiece of the collection. He had the rare ability to flit from one artistic form to the next, producing striking head-shots of artist-friends like Picasso and Matisse, as well as a series of visionary abstract experiments made from inanimate objects. But there is lots more to see here: the febrile energy of Isle Bing’s figure studies; Edward Weston’s meditative female nudes (pictured); even some of the first examples of street photography, such as Robert Frank’s subdued Paris scenes, or the grubby street-boys of downtown Manhattan, smirking down the lens of Helen Levitt’s Leica.
The exhibition gives us an insight into John’s artistic tastes. He prefers portraiture: there are lots of moody shots of cultural icons like Igor Stravinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe, alongside Irving Penn’s playful portrait of John himself. Like their owner, many of the portraits display an exuberant theatricality. Masks appear like a motif, held by stars from Kiki de Montparnasse to Jean Cocteau. John also boasts a noteworthy collection of homoerotic male nudes, some obscure and others better known, like George Platt Lynes’ “A Forgotten Model”, in which a man sits hunched and dejected, before a surrealist backdrop of sea and gathering clouds.
This collection is not a profit-driven investment but a real labour of love, and it’s displayed in a way that reflects that. The works are arranged into dense clusters, just as they appear in John’s home in Atlanta, while his passionate, often personal commentary provides a strong thread through the exhibition. It is through his eyes, discerning yet full of excitement, that we view these important photographs.
“Salvador Dalí, New York” by Irving Penn (1947)
Irving Penn would squash his subjects into a poky corner assembled from two blank boards. This meant that the sitter’s persona could be communicated only by their posture or the way they looked towards the camera, rather than their surrounding environment. The exhibition includes several of these corner-portraits: there’s one of Noël Coward, squashed and awkward, and another of a bemused-looking Duke Ellington. Here, dramatic lighting illuminates Dalí’s upturned moustache and out-turned arms and legs: an aggressive case of man-spreading.
“Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, Hungary, 30 June 1917” by André Kertész (1917)
This modest poolside snap is the first of its kind, as the development of faster shutter-speeds and celluloid film made it possible to capture the body in movement. Kertész was fascinated by the way the water refracted his brother’s image as he swam up and down the pool. This original contact print, tiny though it is, captures the intricate pattern of shadows on his brother’s body. The ridges and undulations of his figure are sharply defined. At the time, photographing the male body was controversial, as Kertész later recalled: “When I photographed [men] my comrades said, ‘You are crazy. Why did you photograph this?’ I answered: ‘Why only girl friends? This also exists.’”
“Glass Tears” by Man Ray (1932)
Man Ray took extreme close-ups of the body, cropping his images in order to conceal the identity of his subjects. This image of a woman’s eyes, peeping through lashes heavy with mascara, has an electric immediacy. The tears that speckle her face are made of glass, glued to the skin. Ray, who was interested in film and narrative, prompts the viewer to wonder what is it that has attracted her attention just above the frame.
“Shukhov Tower” by Alexandr Rodchenko (1927)
The advent of handheld cameras gave photographers freedom to explore the modern metropolis from new perspectives. Alexandr Rodchenko used the worm’s eye viewpoint to capture the estrangement he felt towards the rapidly expanding Moscow skyline. He distilled the city’s architecture into a series of recurring patterns, giving it symmetry and rhythm. In this foreshortened image, the steel girders of the city’s transmission tower are netted together in a chrysalis-like structure that grows into the sky.
“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange (1936)
Dorothea Lange documented the plight of impoverished workers living in rural small-town America during the Great Depression. This is her most famous work, a harrowing photograph of a family on the brink of starvation. Lange has closely cropped the shot in order to focus our attention on the face of the destitute woman, whose expression is both dignified and desolate. Her children bury their heads in her shoulders, averting their faces from Lange’s prying lens. Look closely and you can see a baby nestled in her arms. The photo led to an outpouring of public sympathy when it was published in the national newspapers, eventually forcing the government to dispatch relief to the hundreds of migrant camps materialising across the south. Along with the work of her contemporary and friend Walker Evans, Lange was said to have “introduced America to Americans”; in doing so, she helped establish the documentary form as we know it today.
“Rayograph” by Man Ray (1923)
In his famous series of rayographs (which he named after himself), Ray embraced photographic abstraction, dispensing with the camera and using the darkroom to create arresting works that confound interpretation. By juxtaposing everyday items on photosensitised paper and exposing them to light, he transformed a simple composition into an enigmatic collection of silhouetted symbols. The Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy once suggested that the camera lens provided a “psychological transformation of our eyesight”; looking at “Rayograph”, with its spectral shapes emerging from the inky chemical darkness, it’s hard not to agree.
The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection Tate Modern until May 7th 2017