Modernist photos from Elton John's private collection go on display

Tate Modern’s Radical Eye exhibition features 200 of 8,000 works collected by singer since he quit drinking 26 years ago

Almost 200 modernist photographs from a vast collection built by Sir Elton John after he stopped drinking 26 years ago have gone on display at the Tate Modern.

The singer has about 8,000 works – some of which he hangs in his penthouse in Atlanta, Georgia – in a private collection considered one of the finest in the world.

The photographs lent to the London gallery are images from the 1920s to the 50s by some of the most important photographers of the past century, including Man Ray, André Kertész and Berenice Abbott.

A selection of images from the Radical Eye exhibition.
A selection of images from the Radical Eye exhibition. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

John explained how his passion for photography was inspired by sobriety after leaving rehab. “What drew me to photography was I got sober in 1990. I’d had my pictures and photograph taken by a lot of great photographers and never knew anything about it as an art form whatsoever,” he said.

He bought his first images, black and white fashion photographs, while staying in France with a friend. “I thought these are amazing, I bought maybe 12.”

Since then, John said, photography had taken “over my life in a way … It’s been the art form I’ve loved the most ever and I’ve loved all sorts of art forms. This is the one I’m most passionate and know most about.”

John uses his 18,000 sq ft apartment in the Buckhead area of Atlanta as his private gallery, displaying the images in gold and silver frames rather than the usual black metal.

Sir Elton John at the Tate
Sir Elton John at the Tate. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In his bedroom he hangs Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche, a pair of images – positive and negative – currently on loan to Tate. “It hangs above my bed in Atlanta. So if I die and it falls off the wall at least I will have been killed by a Man Ray,” he joked.

Over the past seven years, the Tate has amassed a photography collection of about 3,000 works but it admits that it came far too late to the genre.

Simon Baker, who was appointed curator of photography in 2009, said: “We almost completely missed the party, I think they were just tidying up from the night before.”

Irving Penn’s image of Salvador Dali.
Irving Penn’s image of Salvador Dali. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Tate/PA

But it could never afford to acquire the works in John’s collection. Prices for modernist photography have soared in recent years, with even John admitting he would not be able to afford many of the works he currently owns.

The Tate said the exhibition marked the beginning of a long-term relationship with John and his partner, David Furnish, who have agreed to loan “important works to the nation”. What they are remains to be seen.

The exhibition chronicles a period often referred to as the “coming of age” of photography, which produced images that were more challenging, experimental and innovative than ever before.

Nusch Éluard by Man Ray.
Nusch Éluard by Man Ray. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Tate/PA

It includes photographs such as Herbert Bayer’s Humanly Impossible (Self-Portrait) in which the artist looks amazed at having apparently removed a section of his arm.

There is also a group of Man Ray portraits of artists and surrealists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Max Ernst and André Breton, being publicly exhibited together for the first time.

In another room, there are documentary photographs from the great depression by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

Alexandr Rodchenko’s Shukov Tower, 1920.
Alexandr Rodchenko’s Shukov Tower, 1920. Photograph: Alexandr Rodchenko ©Dacs, 2016

John said collecting photography had opened his eyes to “one of the most important and progressive art forms of the 20th century”.

He said: “I want everyone to go away thinking about the artists behind these images and marvel at how they experimented and changed the way we see things forever. They were going where no other photographer had gone before. I consider them true adventurers and what they did was extraordinary.”

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

A nude by Edward Weston.
A nude by Edward Weston. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Tate/PA


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

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