Art & Photography / Culture Talks

Inside Elton John's Collection of Rare Modernist Photography

As a new exhibition of the British musician's extraordinary archive opens at the Tate Modern, we speak to the woman behind the collection

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Man Ray Glass Tears
Glass Tears by Man Ray, 1932© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016, Courtesy of The Sir Elton John Photography Collection

The end of the First World War left Europe on the brink of a precipice – one marked by both a depleted population and rapidly developing technologies. It was a time of harsh reality and new discoveries across all industries, and it was in this contradictory era that photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz began to feel that the hazy images of Victorian pictorialism were outdated. Duly enthused, they traded in their soft-focused techniques for a high definition approach. It became known as modernism.

200 vintage prints from this movement have now travelled over 4000 miles from Sir Elton John’s home in Atlanta to the Tate Modern in London. The Radical Eye exhibition is the culmination of several decades of earnest collecting by the singer and his collection director, Newell Harbin, and includes works by game-changing figures such as Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and Man Ray, to name a few. These are the artists who fearlessly reinvented portraiture, still life and street photography, using innovative processes such as double exposure and solarisation to create something entirely new.

The exhibition opens with an image of the collector himself, subtly distorted as Irving Penn slowly moved the camera throughout the duration of a conversation between them. It's a spectacular image, and only the first of many notable portraits in the show; Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Picasso, Matisse, Max Ernst and Gloria Swanson all feature, each presenting a monochrome segment of a pivotal moment in the past. Here AnOther speaks to Harbin, the woman behind the collection.

On modernist photography…
“The modernist movement is the time when photography set out on its own. It’s just so radical – I’m sorry to take that from the title of the show, but it is so radical! I mean, look at the portraits that are done by modernists versus the pictorialists who came before – there’s so much more feeling, energy, exploration and real experimentation. I think at first people thought it was wild, and I think people will walk into the exhibition today and still see it as wild – the angles, the different techniques, the double exposures, the props… When you look at these pictures, you just want to be part of the whole scene. It looks like a crazy party.”

On working with Elton John…
“Elton and I have a great partnership. When we’re together we spend a large amount of time looking for pieces that will complement the works already in the collection. We really try and focus on that, but it’s also got to speak to Elton. If it doesn’t move him, we pass on it immediately, because he lives with the art, it’s on his walls every single day.

He’s very passionate about photography and it’s infectious. When we find someone new he wants to know absolutely everything about the artist. Once I said to him ‘Okay, I think we really have this one artist covered, I think we’re good’. And he was kind of nodding, but a day later said to me ‘No! I don’t think we’re done yet!’. So, it’s a great opportunity to really go deep with each artist in the collection.”

On André Kertész’s underwater swimmer...
“At only 32 by 45mm, this print is just so tiny and beautiful. If you take the mount off you can actually see where Kertész has drawn prop marks onto it. All later versions were based off this first print, so it has this beautiful history to it. That’s really important when we’re collecting, the story that the piece tells. It’s an amazing image of where Kertész was actually resting at a facility after he was injured. They used the pool a lot for rehabilitation there and this image shows another patient floating underwater. I think this image is also about Kertész using the camera for rehabilitation and getting back into life in this way.”

On the importance of print…
“These days people are just paying attention to the jpeg or the quick scan. I mean, I’m guilty of it too – I have toddlers – the phone’s there so you take a quick picture. But that’s not enough, you really have to look and see the detail and texture of the print. Good printing means much more than the image sometimes. I hope that everybody can come to this exhibition and learn what good printing is all about. I’d like for them to see the photograph as an object, not just a fleeting image on your screen.”

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection runs until May 17, 2017 at Tate Modern. 

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