This exhibition was surprisingly marvellous. I was taken aback as I am not particularly a fan of Elton John (let’s call him EJ for the sake of brevity) or celebrity culture. I expected this to be just a not-very-sneaky way of getting more visitors into the Tate Modern.
Well, it has worked and beautifully so. EJ is quoted in the Tate blurb: “Each of these photographs serves as inspiration for me in my life; they line the walls of my home and I consider them precious gems. I want people to think, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before, I never knew this kind of things existed’ – just as I did when I first saw these photographs.”
The exhibition features around 170 images from EJ’s collection of over 8,000 photographs. Section headings included: Portraits; Experiments; Bodies; Documents; Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions. EJ said his love for photography began shortly after he got sober and I wonder how much he was inspired by the modernist idea of the camera being revelatory and progressive. The experimental, and at times risqué, aspect to some of the images must surely relate to his journey with drugs and alcohol, dealing with immense fame and fortune and gaining acceptance as a gay man?
Modernism emphasises materiality and form and new perspectives – something very different from traditional pictorial art. “Photography was a major carrier and shaper of modernism. Not only did it dislocate time and space, but it also undermined the linear structure of conventional narrative in a number of respects. These included access to visual information about the past carried by the photo, and detail over and above that normally noted by the human eye.” 
Many of the portraits were of famous and talented musicians, writers or artists. Clearly these were people with great presence and charisma and who were very aware that their representation would influence their standing in society. This raises questions around the levels of control and collaboration between artist and sitter. This section of the show, however, did not shed much light on the alchemy of portraiture for me. I still wonder, could anyone possibly take a bad picture of Salvador Dali? How much can an individual’s creative fire be seen in a portrait? Or is it just a question of having a penetrating stare and great facial hair?
In the post show student discussion, almost everyone agreed that the Irving Penn corner shots were a highlight. Superb images, some awkward, some confident, all powerful. “This confinement, surprisingly seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against. For me the picture possibilities were interesting: limiting the subjects’ movement seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding on to them.”  I overheard a young child asking his Mum if “those people in the corner have all been naughty?”
Another highlight for me was Steichen’s Gloria Swanson, 1924. This is a beautiful example of some of the kitschy camp in the show. There were a lot of effeminate male nudes and androgyny – all very positive and self-possessed, even at its most experimental. There were mirrors and masks, a mixture of the familiar and strange. We also see some photomontage, camera-less work, light abstractions and attempts to construct an alternative reality.
An image I had not seen before and which really appealed was Man Ray’s Anatomies, 1930. This abstraction and depersonalisation of body parts works so well with the unusual perspective creating a powerful sculptural shape which is almost monumental.
Many of the prints were made soon after the photographs were taken and some are extremely small – perhaps due to photographic paper being scarce or very expensive? EJ says that he adores images from contact sheets and says that Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer is one of his favourites (also, incidentally, “credited by British artist David Hockney as the inspiration for his Californian swimming pool paintings.” ) 
The photographs were all shown in the actual frames displayed in EJ’s home. Some were so bling that I was worried it would ruin the exhibition for me – it seemed to be extremely distracting and detracting. I did question my own prejudices on this and wondered why it was OK for oil paintings to be in very ornate frames but not a Kertesz. After a while I could see the framing added a surreal and modernist feel to the images so I soon got over myself and now all other photos look boring and unfinished!
The distorted Irving Penn portraits of EJ in the first room of the show disabused my notion of him being overly vain and precious about his own image. This also set the tone for a number of portraits which explored the possibilities of how studio conventions could be flouted.
There were photographers were featured with whom I was not familiar: Paul Outerbridge (American, 1896-1958); Jaromír Funke (Czech, 1896-1945); Josef Breitenbach (German, 1896-1984); Emmanuel Sougez (French, 1889-1972); Otto Umbehr AKA Umbo (German, 1902-80); Margaret de Patta (American, 1903–1964); Herbert List (German, 1903-75); Albert Renger-Patzsch (German, 1897-1966).
We debated at length how many of the prints had been purchased for their collectible value, as opposed to their aesthetic appeal or emotional punch (such as this incredible portrait by Lange.) As Modernism is partly about a fascination with the medium of photography in itself, it would make sense that this appeals to EJ who came to it late and admitted he knew nothing before starting his collection. He can enjoy the coming of age of this form of art.
It was fantastic to see finally some iconic images ‘in the flesh’ such as Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs. I had never noticed before that there is a strong line created by a wood slat across the top of her head, which seems to be very confining and made me feel quite claustrophobic once I had seen it.
In the final room, I eavesdropped a long and rather technical discussion between a middle age dad and his adult daughter. They were looking at Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of the George Washington Bridge, taken in 1933, and went into great detail about the engineering, where the load would be borne, how the suspension would have worked, the challenges of the construction. Both seemed to know as much as the other and it was such a charming interaction I could not tear myself away, pretending to be absorbed in the Rodchenko image displayed nearby. When they had finished, there was a pause while they both carried on staring at the photograph and then the dad said quietly, “I loved that conversation.”
- Great aesthetic and impact of the positive and negative Man Ray images (usually displayed above EJ & David Furnish’s bed) – Noire et Blanche
- A chequered background is an interesting idea for a portrait (eg George Antheil, 1924 by Man Ray)
- “Now at least we know everything that painting isn’t.” – Pablo Picasso in answer to whether painting figures was still possible after photography
- Exploring unusual perspectives of the body (eg Man Ray’s Anatomies) for new abstractions
- Dali is quoted saying that the camera has the ability to record an “unprecedented reality” and “nothing has proved the rightness of surrealism more than photography”
- The simplicity of this Emmanuel Sougez image – when shadows become more interesting than the object
- Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A critical introduction – 4th edition. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.