When he’s not writing pop songs about wind-proof candles or knitting himself new wigs, Sir Elton John is a serious collector of modernist photography. No, honestly, he’s been buying the stuff for years, and his collection is world famous.
This show features just a little slice out of his 8,000-strong hoard. Some images are grouped thematically, others hung in the same way they are in his office. There are portraits by fashion great Irving Penn, groundbreaking compositions from André Kertesz, surreal experimentations from Josef Breitenbach, innovations from Man Ray: hold me closer, tiny art lover, because this really is a staggering collection of some of the most important photography of the early twentieth-century.
Photography wasn’t new when these images were being made. But modernism was, and that was an excuse to tear everything apart. It’s the ‘radical’ bit that works best in this show, when photographers were pushing the medium to extreme conclusions, testing its limits. The work of Man Ray or Breitenbach or Edward Steichen feels genuinely exciting, like scientists discovering new cures to a disease; a disease called boring art. It’s the wild stuff – the rayograms, photomontages and solarised images – that’s the real gold here: Margaret de Patta transforming an ice cube tray and some marbles into an abstract cityscape, Herbert Bayer chopping a chunk out of his own arm, Man Ray shattering a portrait of Max Ernst. There’s compositional experimentation too: extreme perspective shifts, distortions, close-ups, cropping, all these tricks which make you feel like you’re looking at work that was ripping down barriers and destroying rule books.
The rooms of more conventional portraiture and documentary photography are a little less thrilling, but that’s probably due more to over-exposure (in a non-photographic sense, obvs) than anything else. A lot of this is iconic and innovative for its time, like the work of Dorothea Lange, but you end up pining for the abstract, longing for the radical.
This is a deeply personal collection, but it feels like Elton’s name is being pushed a little too hard, like someone in marketing thinks that modernism-loving Elton John megafans are the perfect solution to dwindling visitor numbers. Does it matter who owns this stuff? Do you really need to go to an art gallery so you can pat the guy who wrote ‘Bennie and the Jets’ on the back for liking Man Ray? Is that what you want from an exhibition, the chance to re-evaluate your perception of a pop star? I mean, who gives a shit, right?
But the show succeeds despite all of that. It succeeds because so much of this work is beautiful and important. It succeeds because, at its best, these pictures are more than just photography, they’re the reinvention of art.