Archive, Exhibitions

Elton John’s Private Photography Collection Launches at Tate Modern

Main image: Tears, 1930 © Man Ray. All images © the artist, courtesy Sir Elton John Collection/Tate Modern

He may be better known for Candle In The Wind, but Sir Elton John possesses one of the world’s greatest private collections of photography, and it's about to go on show for the first time, at Tate Modern.

Sir Elton John’s selection of classic modernist images from the 1920s to the 1950s features almost 200 works from more than 60 artists, including figures like Berenice Abbott, André Kertész, Man Ray, Alexandr Rodchenko and Edward Steichen.

The exhibition consists entirely of rare vintage prints, all created by the artists themselves, allowing the exhibition to tell the story of modernist photography in this way for the first time in the UK.

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Migrant Mother 1936 © Dorothea Lange, courtesy The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection

The Radical Eye introduces a crucial moment in the history of photography – a rupture often referred to as the ‘coming of age’ of the medium, when artists used photography as a tool through which they could redefine and transform visions of the modern world.

Technological advancements gave artists the freedom to experiment and test the limits of the medium and present the world through a new, distinctly modern visual language.

This exhibition reveals how the timeless genres of the portrait, nude and still life were reimagined through the camera during this period, also exploring photography’s unique ability to capture street life and architecture from a new perspective.

Featuring portraits of great cultural figures of the 20th century, including Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston by Tina Modotti, Jean Cocteau by Berenice Abbott and Igor Stravinsky by Edward Weston, the exhibition gives insight into the relationships and inner circles of the avant-garde.

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Dancer 1932 © Ilse Bing Willem, courtesy The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection

A group of Man Ray portraits are exhibited together for the first time, having been brought together by Sir Elton John over the past twenty-five years, depicting key surrealist figures such as Andre Breton and Max Ernst alongside artists including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar.

The photographs examine how the experimentation of the era, both in the darkroom and on the surface of the print, such as Herbert Bayer’s photomontage and Maurice Tabard’s solarisation, led to a pushing of the accepted conventions of portraiture.

As life underwent rapid changes in the 20th century, photography offered a new means to communicate and represent the world. Alexandr Rodchenko, László Moholy-Nagy and Margaret Bourke-White employed the ‘worm’s eye’ and ‘bird’s eye’ views to create new perspectives of the modern metropolis – techniques associated with constructivism and the Bauhaus.

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Nusch Éluard © Man Ray (1928) courtesy The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection

The move towards abstraction is also explored, from isolated architectural elements to camera-less photography such as Man Ray’s rayographs and Harry Callahan’s light abstractions.

The important role of documentary photography as a tool of mass communication is demonstrated in Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother 1936 and Walker Evans’ Floyde Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama 1936, from the Farm Security Administration project.

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is at Tate Modern from 10 November 2016 until 7 May 2017.