The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection

Art, Photography
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(6user reviews)
Man Ray: 'Glass Tears (Les Larmes)', 1932. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016
Man Ray: 'Glass Tears (Les Larmes)', 1932. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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. 



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4 out of 5 stars

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Unexpectedly amazing show, I’m glad I ignored my first inclination to avoid this exhibition because it seemed to be more about Elton John than the photography! Perfectly sized not to get too tiring, this show is practically a lesson on Art Photography. We’re able, even if photography is part of our common visual knowledge now, to be amazed and impressed with the possibilities of this media through what once were new perspectives and experimentations. From portraits to experiments to documentation, through unexpected angles and use of light or space, we are reminded how photography is far from being a way to ‘freeze what we see’ but an introduction to new ways to see. And a short Elton John video interview presented there shows how crazy (obsessed, really) he is about photography, what was an interesting trivia to know!


This is an interesting sneaky insight of Elton John’s extensive photography collection. I've heard his existing collection is so huge, that he brought a property exclusively to house all of these works and it is impressive that this is probably only a small selection of these. It is extremely varied ranging from abstract to portraits to a touching collection from the American Depression era. It is predominantly black and white and it's fascinating to see how different photographs can evoke such powerful emotions and reactions from the viewer. The collection is set out cleverly; the certain way the photos are mounted, framed and grouped together definitely contributes to the impact of the photograph to the observer. Standout pieces were Glass tears strangely simple but powerful at the same time and deeply resonated with me. The underwater swimmer was the tiniest print and I also liked the silhouette where the development and light leakage and layering of a photo could greatly affect the presentation of the final image. 


I went to a lot of photography exhibitions last year and, being a photographer, I own a lot of photography books; so I didn't see a lot of new work here or discussions on early photography that I hadn't already come across. However, I still enjoyed this collection of work very much. 

I think for me the difference here from a themed exhibition, or show of just one artist, is the fact that it's a private collection. In a way it actually informs us quite a lot about Elton John, alongside the work itself. It tells us about his joy when he was first properly introduced to photography as an art form and his love of the original process. The way he really takes time on the framing and layout of the photos shows us how important he believes presentation of art is and how, sometimes, the showcase of something is even more relevant than the work itself. Could that be a little reflection on his own flamboyance? 

It's also a journey, not only of the collector but the subject of photography itself; a summary, in a way, of the medium of photography. Very informative if you've not followed the medium closely before and simple to follow it through. The variety of work on display is quite wide as well, so if you want a to enjoy a bite size sample of over a centuries worth of great photography this is certainly a good way to go about it. 

A very emotional and exciting exhibition to everyone who's interested in the history of photography - amazing collection!


For a simply constructed photography exhibition, 'Radical Eye' has a powerful impact.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the images collected in this show. The photographs, manipulations, and photograms represent a shift in the history of photography - how images were composed, what could be shown, what counted - and as you walk through the exhibition you can chart how these images have come to influence the photography we see around us today.

The organisation of the exhibition was very simplistic - a lot more could have been done through juxtaposing these images with earlier examples of photography, which could have demonstrated to a casual viewer just how 'radical' the body of work is. However, the starkness of the show opens up a space for you to think about the stories behind the images, or to just reflect on the beauty of what's on show.

Well worth a visit.


Who knew Elton John had such an expansive photography collection? This collection shows early modernist work, where photographers were experimenting and testing limits. I'm sure some will love this exhibition, for me, it lacked structure, work was randomly grouped together.