Radical Eye – Tate Modern, January 2017

img_3516It is hard to know what a photographic exhibition of modernist photographs from 1920s-50s will hold for the Instagram generation. Photograph-taking has irrevocably changed with the rise of the smart phone and image apps that allow you to manipulate and play with photos at the swipe of a finger.

But whilst we take more pictures than ever before, they are ephemeral, a throw away digital junk that sits on our phones and Instagram accounts. Admired and liked then forgotten. One thing we really don’t do anymore is look at photographic images in print form in a frame on a wall. 


Radical Eye is an exhibition and showcase of one man’s obsession with photography. That one man just happens to be Elton John. There is a certain voyeurist pleasure at seeing a celebrity collection. The Tate is displaying just a selection of Elton’s 8,000 photographs. My first thought is – does he really have all 8,000 on display? How would you choose what to have on your walls? Would you rotate them?

That question is neatly answered by a short video in the exhibition. Elton wanders around his 18,000 square foot apartment, crammed floor to ceiling with photographs and you realise he probably really does have every one on display.

Elton states at the beginning of the exhibition his wish is for people to visit and say –

I’ve never seen anything like that before, I never knew this kind of thing existed.

It is a bold statement, but even with today’s image obsessed Instagram addicted devotees there is certainly something new and fresh on show even though the images are ultimately from the past.

It is hard to grasp how new and cutting edge some techniques were, some photographs feel dated and yet others have a timeless quality to them. I love the Man Ray ‘rayographs’ made without a camera by directly placing objects on photosensitised paper. They remind me of the Museum of London archaeological x-ray photographs of padlocks burnt in the Great Fire in 1666, currently on display in ‘Fire Fire’. It is an interesting comparison of 2016 cutting edge exhibition display and 1920s experimentalism.

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A padlock burnt in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Displayed as an x-ray

Celebrity culture is never too far away with a series of photographs of artists and thinkers of the 1920s. I love the picture of Georgia O’Keeffe by Stieglitz, every photograph I see of her captures something of her artistry. It is a really an interesting point I had not considered about the power of the artist as sitter trying to control their image and how they are portrayed. Each photograph is a competition with the photographer and sitter and you wonder who holds the power?

There is a stunning photograph by Edward Weston of Igor Stravinsky from 1935, there is an intensity of gaze that is arresting, but the composition with the hand is delicate and beautiful. The light hits Stravinsky’s glasses perched on his head in an almost futuristic way. There is something mesmerising about someone looking directly into camera. There is a boldness and a directness but somehow a naivety that is in there in some of the photographs too, it is hard to describe.

There are a series of  ‘corner portraits’ by Irving Penn that are fascinating. All shot in the same corner of a room or studio, the different sitters fill the space in completely different ways from those who looked squeezed in and contained by the space like Noel Coward, to those like Duke Ellington who look relaxed. There is a shot of the boxer Joe Louis who looks defeated and yet defiant all in the one shot, there is so much food for thought here for those who love to take a snap or two.

The Switch House is made for photography.

As I near the end there is a Werner Mantz shot of a staircase from 1928 that reminds me of the Tate Switch House and it brings me back to the here and now. I think of all those who rushed to the Switch House opening not to see the art but simply to take pictures of the building itself. It does make you realise how long ago these photographers were pushing techniques and trying new viewpoints.

Taking a photograph of the Turbine Hall from ‘above’

Aleskandr Rodchenko’s (1891-1956) advice below stands us in as good stead today as it did in the early 1900s –

“The most interesting view points for modern photography are from above-down and from below-up and any others rather than belly button level.”

My favourite snap of the Tate Modern a building begging to be captured.

I began by wondering what this exhibition holds for the Instagram generation and the answer is a whole lot. There is something about stripping back photography, thinking more about the basics, forgetting about the technical wizardry that leaves a layer of fog between photographer and object that is so refreshing. I have to thank Elton John, which is a weird sentence to write in a blog. But one man’s obsession has led to a lovely exhibition and I am grateful he shared his gems with us. Perhaps the greatest joy is just to see photographs on a wall, a nudge if ever we needed one to print out our prize snaps, free them from their digital prisons and enjoy them in the real world not just the online one.


Radical Eye: Modernist photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, is on at the Tate Modern till 21st May 2017 for ticket prices and opening times please see the website http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/radical-eye-modernist-photography-sir-elton-john-collection

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