Well, this is the nearest you’ll get to Atlanta!” declared Newell Harbin, standing back to survey the wall of pictures in the final room of The Radical Eye, Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, which has just opened at London’s Tate Modern.
Harbin is the director of the collection, and “Atlanta” is the home of Elton John and his husband David Furnish - though they have five more around the world — and, like the wall that Harbin is standing in front of, its rooms are hung from floor to ceiling with photographs. Elton John wakes up “with Man Ray’s ‘Noire et Blanche’ above my head”.
That famous portrait of Ray’s muse Kiki de Montparnasse twinned with an African mask is just one of almost 8000 works that John has acquired over the past 25 years. In a film made for the show, he talks with speedy enthusiasm as the camera pans round his apartment, revealing the full extent of his obsession: every vertical surface is covered with photographs, each one in a heavy frame, many quite ornate (this is the work of Myott, his personal framer in Atlanta: “I say [to him] . . . ‘make it feel important’”).
Some of the more severe, steely grey frames have an Art Deco feel about them, a reminder of John’s earlier collection of Art Nouveau and Deco jewellery, objects and furniture, plus all his stage costumes and pop memorabilia (including his myriad pairs of specs), which he sold off in one massive purge at Sotheby’s in 1988 for around $8m.
It was after this, and rehab in 1990, that he discovered photography. Staying with friends in south-west France, he was introduced to the Los Angeles gallery owner David Fahey, who showed and then sold him his first group of black-and-white photographs.
By his own admission, he had swapped one addiction for another — except that his desire for photographs was “much healthier”. In 1992 he set up an Aids charity to which all the future royalties from his singles would be donated, and since then he has spent his spare cash, of which there must be a considerable amount, on photographs.
Now Tate has been chosen as a beneficiary. The Radical Eye is the beginning of a long-term relationship that will see further loan exhibitions from the collection, as well the agreement of Elton John and David Furnish to give major works to the national collection.
Over the years he has been collecting, prices for photographs have risen dramatically, particularly for 20th-century works made between the two world wars, of which few vintage prints survive. This has made it ever more difficult for national institutions to purchase high-quality prints for their collections. In 1993, Maria Morris Hambourg, the first curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, staged an exhibition of photographs from the Gilman Paper Company Collection, one of the greatest in the world; just over a decade later, the Metropolitan acquired the entire collection, part-gift, part- purchase, from the Gilman Foundation.
It is an example that other museums have had to follow — particularly Tate, where, as Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, admits in her foreword for the catalogue of the new show, photographs have been collected “seriously and strategically” only since 2009. The gallery has already been heavily dependent on the generosity of Michael Wilson, producer of the James Bond movies, another world-class collector, who has supplied Tate with entire loan exhibitions as well as individual gifts. Now, thanks to Tate director Nicholas Serota’s timely intercession some years ago, Tate looks set to benefit enormously from Elton John’s hoard.
Inside the show, anybody anticipating the usual rows of identical black frames running along the walls is in for a pleasant surprise. The elegant level 2 galleries in the new Switch House are almost unrecognisable from the wide open spaces that welcomed visitors when the new Tate extension opened in the summer. Divided into a series of enclosed gallery-rooms with walls painted in various shades of a soft blue-grey, the photographs are arranged to evoke the style and density of a rather grand living-room hang. In some cases, groups of pictures have been taken down from the walls in Atlanta and put up on the walls of the Switch House in exactly the same configuration.
Modernism, loosely the period between 1920 and 1930, is just one way of slicing up a collection of 8000 works, but the curators have selected a show that is strong on the master works, offering up some of the early 20th century’s greatest photographic hits.
This was one of the most adventurous periods in the medium’s history, when avant-garde artists turned to photography as a means of discovering a new visual language. Along with better- known photographers - Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Berenice Abbott - are many less familiar names, evidence, to the sceptics, that this really is the personal collection of an enthusiast. Jaromír Funke, co-founder of the Prague Photo Club, or Margaret De Patto, a jewellery designer who studied under Moholy-Nagy in Chicago, are just two of more than 60 photographers whose works are included in the show. It was, as quickly becomes evident, a fertile period for women photographers.
The camera, particularly the handheld camera (the Leica was introduced in 1924), was the perfect instrument to explore new aesthetic positions. For some artists, like Moholy-Nagy himself, it was a machine with a greater visual capacity than the human eye, a magnifier of scientific and technological developments and a pitiless recorder of facts. For others, like the Surrealists, it could create a visual equivalent to the subconscious mind. It offered new visual perspectives: “Take shots from all angles except the navel until all these points are recognised,” advocated Aleksandr Rodchenko; the bird’s eye and the worm’s eye were favourite vantages.
Experiments went on both inside the camera (double and multiple exposures) and in the darkroom, with solarisation, montage, collage and photograms (the source of Man Ray’s “Rayographs”), all adding visual complexity.
The move towards abstraction is an undercurrent of the show and comes to the surface most visibly in the room of portraits, where Shoair Mavlian, the Tate curator (who, along with Simon Baker and Harbin, has done a terrific job of pacing the pictures) demonstrates through her sequencing the way in which the subject of a portrait gradually ceded importance to technique.
Thus Harry Callaghan, the American photographer whose favourite subject was his wife Eleanor, uses multiple exposures to conceal her face behind a screed of superimposition. Or, out in the landscape, he reduces its details — even the trail of a torch beam in the darkness — to tiny gems of abstraction.
“I’m a great lover of small photographs, tiny pictures,” Elton John explains in the film, selecting one of his most treasured pictures, a 4.1cm x 5.7cm original contact print of André Kertész’s “Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom” (1917), the earliest work in the show. Visitors will have to queue up to see it, just as they will have to stand on tiptoe to peer up at some of the smallest, highest works. But it is worth the effort. This is one of the few surviving images from the period when Kertész was recovering from being wounded at the front in 1915. The picture, of his brother Eugene distorted by the rippling water, would inspire Kertész’s later experiments with photo distortion. Kertész is one of the references (the other is Weegee) for the portrait of Elton John himself that opens the show: the left side of his face twisted into a semi-comic mask. It is one of a series taken by Irving Penn in 1997, and makes him look, he says, like “an insane Alan Bennett”.
A trophy wall of classic portraits, four of which are by Man Ray, gives pride of place to “Glass Tears” (1932), for which he paid £122,500 at Sotheby’s in 1993, then the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction: “I thought I had gone stark raving mad, but I had to have it,” he explains. Of course, had he bought it today, he would have seemed even madder. Beside it hangs Steichen’s 1924 dark portrait of Gloria Swanson, whose smouldering gaze the veil of black lace that Steichen has thrown over the lens of the camera (perhaps to protect himself?) does little to dampen.
One room given over to documentary pictures from the period, in which Dorothea Lange’s picture of Florence Owens Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” and her children, taken in California in1936, must be the most familiar. The same year Lange took another portrait, of a young girl, appropriately enough, in “Shacktown”, Oklahoma. On the back of the print, Lange wrote her own verdict of the child’s chances: “The damage is already done”. Most of the work is American, apart from two pale Paris images by Robert Frank: Walker Evans’s portraits for the Farm Securities Administration and Helen Levitt’s New York portraits of children, though none of her colour work, which should be on the collector’s shopping list.
Much emphasis has been placed on Elton John’s demand for quality. Almost all the works here are vintage prints, that is, prints made by the photographer within five years of the picture being taken (10 at a stretch). And it is without doubt the standard of the prints in this exhibition that makes all the difference. Faced with an exquisite vintage print, even those wearyingly familiar with some of the images might find that familiarity wiped clean away.
‘The Radical Eye, Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection’,
Tate Modern, London, to May 2017.