Art & Photography

Sir Elton John: A Radical Eye

The legendary British musician has opened up his extensive collection of modernist photography to the public, as part of a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. Here, the show’s curator, Shoair Mavlian, explains why this influential movement continues to endure

There are approximately 8000 photographs in Sir Elton’s private collection, but there is real strength in those images from the Modernist period. This was a really important moment in the history of the medium because there were great shifts in technology and society in general at the time, and photography was instrumental in launching people into a modern world. The visual language created in this period endured as the most popular way to communicate throughout the 20th century, and even today many of these images still look radical and contemporary, despite them being 100 years old.

In the 1920s, photography began to appear in newspapers and magazines, and was circulated to a mass audience. Today we use photographs to communicate everyday, and many aspects of digital photography have their roots in the early 20th century, so it has never felt so relevant to explore this period on this scale.

There is great variation in Sir Elton’s collection. Some areas and photographers, like Man Ray and André Kertész, have been collected in great depth, but the ‘Radical Eye’ juxtaposes them with works by the likes of Josef Breitenbach, who isn’t necessarily well known. His works plays with the use of colour, photomontage, and experiments with the surface of the print itself through different printing processes. To my knowledge, his works have never been shown in the UK before, so it’s intriguing to see them displayed alongside more traditional approaches to Modernist photography.

It’s very important for the Tate Modern to introduce this moment in the history of photography, in terms of moving forward. The gallery started to acquire and collect photographic imagery in 2009, and since then, it has offered one photography exhibit of the medium each year. This new presentation gives us a basis for understanding where our modern concepts in photography began, and gives us a foundation for future shows in London.

Shoair Mavlian is a curator ‘The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection‘ runs at Tate Modern, London, until 7 May 2017