What is it about modernist photography that appeals so strongly to you?
‘I think art at that time in the twentieth century was so exciting – as was literature, film and music. Everything was just so new, there were no boundaries and that’s the way it should be. It was the start of an amazing art movement. It transformed my life and it’s educated me – there’s always something to learn in life, and if you stop learning, you stop living; that’s my motto.’
When did you first become enamoured with this kind of photography?
‘I was so blissfully unaware of photography when I started collecting it. Although I’d had my photograph taken by many top photographers I was really ignorant about photography as an art form. I started collecting fashion photography first, which was a pretty good way of getting into it – Horst, Ritts and Penn. I then started to become more adventurous and look around in catalogues and the Jackson Fine Art Gallery in Atlanta. I found Edward Curtis and all these incredible photographers – Steichen, Stieglitz, Strand, Man Ray, Drtikol, Funke – who were doing incredible things with cameras, things that I’d never seen.’
How do you choose photos to buy?
‘Talking about photography reconnects you to why you wanted to collect it in the first place. It’s down to the beauty, the eye, the subject matter and the sheer genius and class. Photographs are for me like Picassos or Monets. I’d rather have one photograph than ten Monets or Picassos. I can appreciate they’re art, but it’s not for me – I like photography. I never buy anything for investment, I buy things because I like them.’
‘I was so blissfully unaware of photography when I started collecting it’
Do you think people will be surprised that a pop icon like you has such a passion for avant-garde photography?
‘Art is really a reflection of the times we live in. Each musical movement from the beginning of the twentieth century – from rag time to traditional jazz, to big bands, to blues, to rock and roll – reflects a time in people’s lives. Visual art does exactly the same. These photographs, they tell the truth. They tell the story right there and that’s how great these photographers were. They believed in what they were doing and wanted to show what was going on, and that still happens within photography now. When I first saw Elvis Presley, it was in Life magazine. I was maybe 12 years old, I was sitting in the hairdressers having my hair cut and picked up a copy of Life. I saw a picture of Elvis Presley and thought: Who is this man? This man looks as if he’s from Mars, he looks amazing, who is he? And those photographs of Elvis Presley stayed with me for ever. I wanted to be him, I wanted to meet him. And that week my mother came home with the record of “Heartbreak Hotel” and said: “I don’t know who this man is, but it’s fantastic.” I put two and two together and I said: “That’s the guy I told you about, that I saw in Life magazine” and that was the power of those magazines at that time, the power of photography.’
'The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection' is at Tate Modern until May 7 2017.