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Sir Elton’s jaw-dropping photo collection

Some things are just so beautiful they need to be shared. Debbie, our fab Muddy Sussex ed, went along to Elton’s John’s photographic exhibition The Radical Eye at the Tate Modern. It’s a stunner. Put it on your to-do list when you’re next in London town.

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. I’ve 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 all I can say is ‘wow!’ Beauty, elegance, subtlety, and all in black and white.

Sir Elton John talks us through his exhibition in his home in the Tate film. As Sir Elton tells us in a short film in the exhibition, 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.

‘Underwater Swimmer’, André Kertész’s,1917, The Sir Elton John Photography Collection © Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures

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.

‘Migrant Mother’, Dorothea Lange, 1936, The Sir Elton John Photography Collection

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.

‘Salvador Dali, New York’, Irving Penn, 1947, The Sir Elton John Photography Collection, copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

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!

Man Ray’s ‘Glass Tears’ (Les Larmes) 1932, Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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.

Bling meets black and white surrealism in Elton’s bedroom in the Tate film

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!”

Not one of Elton’s. Debbie’s own Surrealist portrait in the booth

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 haven’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.


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