The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection (Tate Modern, 10 November 2016–21 May 2017)
So Elton John got sober in 1990 and sold much of what he owned – but an art dealer friend showed him some black and white photographs and he became hooked enough to buy a dozen on the spot. Since then he has amassed something like 8,000 of them, which grace the walls of his Atlanta apartment in Academy style frame-by-frame, check-by-check. About 150 of them are on display, in John’s frames, in the new exhibition space at t’Tate t’Modern.
It is an extraordinary collection of modernist images, from the big names and the less well known, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Inevitably, it needs stamina – and the sudden bursts of colour on two walls is a relief from black and white, no matter how beautiful black and white is. As these are photographs as art, colour is mostly banished from the practice until the 1970s anyway. But when the photos can be as small as a cigarette card and no larger than A4, a certain amount of (sorry) focus is required.
Broadly speaking, the images split into three categories: the portrait; the document; and the estrangement. To my eye, the last is the most interesting, the first the least, but the categories overlap.
A lot of the portraits are of artists, authors or musicians, as artist photographs document their own circle. There are muses, teachers and pupils – so we have Man Ray, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Alfred Stieglitz as subject or object. Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of Georgia O’Keefe is unusual as her face takes up the left side of the print, with wood, perhaps fencing, forming the right half; usually he chops her up into body parts. We have a row of artists and composers, André Breton and Ivor Stravinsky among others, where we are invited to perceive the artistic impulse at work in the face staring back at us.
Along one wall, almost appropriately, are Irving Penn’s images of celebrities jammed into the corner of a wall apparently structured for the purpose. Noel Coward looks especially tall and wiry, although the caption, “Noel Coward was a playwright, director, composer and noted wit”, whilst not wrong, seems a little… off. Spencer Tracy did indeed win two Oscars, but that seems a little clipped too. Meanwhile, Carl Van Vechten depicts Leo Coleman as Toby in The Medium 18 May 1946, but doesn’t explain Leo Coleman was a black dancer in the Katherine Dunham troupe who appeared in an opera, The Medium, premiered at Columbia University ten days earlier. Dora Maar appears, but it’s assumed that you know she’s one of Picasso’s muses as well as a photographer and painter.
There is a room devoted to documentary, with some of the greats – Ansel Adams, Ilse Bing, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt and so on, the great projects of the WPA in the 1930s and images of cities. Of course, there are all kinds of ironies and paradoxes – not least the millionaire rock musician and philanthropist owning and empathising with an image of poverty such as Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936). We have the art of poverty rather than the poverty of art, but we are projecting the story on the image. Part of the documentation is possible due to new smaller format cameras or faster films; some of the pictures are snatched street photographs, taken without their object’s knowledge, others would have been carefully set up. The distinction is not clear here; you’ll need to go elsewhere (the catalogue?) for technical details. I appreciated a picture by Robert Frank of Paris, I suspect the only living photographer from the exhibition.
Finally, the estranging, the avant garde, the experimental. Lazló Moholy-Nagy’s View From the Berlin Radio Tower (1928) is a good starting point, as objects blur into abstraction when viewed from on high – as does the Boy On Bicycle From Brooklyn Bridge by Ralph Steiner. There are several radio towers and aerials here, some as vantage points, others a view from below, as choice of bird or worm’s eye view collides with modernity. In distinction from distance, there is the close-up of objects (eggs, cups, plants) or tight cropping, to make us question what we are seeing. The photo as still life become abstract. Paul Strand – a protégé of sorts of Stieglitz and underrepresented here – combines both with the play of shadows of the commuter against the columns of Wall Street. And then there are the distortions in the photographing or developing stages, the double exposures, the scratches and damaged. I knew Herbert Bayer’s Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait) (1932) with the missing underarm chunk, but I hadn’t connected him to Lonely Metropolitan (1932), the eyes on hands in front of montaged buildings, which I half recognised. There is Man Ray’s Glass Tears, the titular drops like beads across a tightly cropped face, I think a mannequin’s? (It’s telling I can’t tell – take that, uncanny valley. Apparently he made it just after he split up from Lee Miller; I don’t think there were any of her photos on display here but it’s a depressing though that she would be so replaced.) And of course, there’s the Rayographs, one of several versions of the technique of camera-less pictures where objects are placed on light sensitive paper.
There is much here to enjoy and appreciate, if you can have the patience to slow down and admire. John evidently has taste, or has been well-curated (odd labelling aside). Ideally, I think, you’d go in and see half a dozen pictures and then go and stare at a bright coloured painting to recalibrate. But the thought of whatever selection there is of eight thousand pictures on his walls – where inevitably they must become invisible, feels me with a sense of unease.