Way back in 1988 Elton John had a huge sort out of the vast array of possessions he had acquired over the preceding decade or so. He then took the decision to divest himself of an outstanding collection of artworks, furniture, clothes, jewellery and much more. It was an extraordinary event, maybe the biggest spring clean ever, though rather than taking his items to the charity shops on Gloucester Road as we tend to do (don’t get too excited, you won’t find any works by Kandinsky in the Oxfam shop), he sold his via the Sotherby’s auction house and netted himself over $8 million in the process.
What then would a spontaneous collector such as Elton turn his attention to? Well, in 1991 photography was the answer, and this fascinating exhibition opens the shutter lens to give us an insight into the way that his passion for this subject has consumed him since. It brings together nearly 200 pictures from his collection of around 8,000 which normally reside in his specially purchased property in Atlanta.
The exhibition focuses entirely on black and white works, the rooms overflow with an elegant chromatic beauty. The modernist era was a time of experimentation as new techniques and methods for taking and processing photographs, at the forefront of this was Man Ray and its wonderful to see so many of his original works at close quarters. The influence of The Bauhaus School runs heavily through this exhibition and the invention and stunning simplicity of many of the works here are a lesson to us all.
There are a wonderful array of portraits, with many of the great figures of the art world of the twentieth century captured brilliantly. Particularly interesting are the collection of portraits by Irving Penn, where a series of celebrities find themselves squeezed into the corner of a plain room. Some emerge commanding the space, others appear to shrink almost merging into the emptiness of there surroundings.
Some of the most famous documentary photographs from the last century also feature. Most celebrated perhaps is Dorothea Lange masterpiece “Migrant Mother” which illustrates the desperation of the Great Depression in 1930’s America. The exhibition shows us how powerful the camera is at capturing a moment, for both education and propaganda.
Some of my favourite pictures were in the room labelled Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions. Here the simplest of images are transformed into stunning captures of light and tone. It could be stark metalwork against a clear sky, receding puddles reflecting sunlight on a pavement or the simple elegance of flower captured at close quarters. What these pictures provide us with though, is a new way of seeing and understanding our world.
And that really is what art should do.
As a bonus when visiting this exhibition, you will have the chance to wander around the extraordinary new extension to Tate Modern. If ever a building were to spark the urge to capture an unusual angle of juxtaposition between different floors, then this is it. Take your camera, who knows, one day Sir Elton may wish to talk to you about buying your picture. It will need to be good though, he has a very good eye.
Open until 7 May 2017