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Radical Eye:Modernist Photography Tate Modern 10 Nov 16 – 7 May 2017

Sir Elton John Collection

Curated by Shoair Mavlian with Simon Baker and Newell Harbin, Director of The Sir Elton John Photography Collection.

The exhibition of Sir Elton John’s private collection of over 8,000 prints, which he has been collecting for just over 25 years. The collection ranges from the early twentieth century to the present day.

The exhibition is contained within seven rooms each with a theme and all the photographs on display are displayed in the homes of both Sir Elton John and David Furnish.

The radical eye begins with a narrative on the wall and a photograph View from the Berlin Tower 1928, leading into Portraits, Experiments, Bodies into Documents and finally Objects, Perspectives and Abstractions.

The rooms are filled some literally with photographs’ in frames and document the artistic approach and the photographic processes involved. The colour of the walls painted in a metallic grey echo the silver halide in film and the lighting is bright throughout the exhibition.

The Portraits, which I have a keen interest in, where most intriguing in the portrayal of well- known figure, artists, and actors. In particular, the poses and the objects that surrounded them Salvador Dali, 1944 I felt was a typical example with his gaze and long pointed moustache, which I am sure most would describe or remember if his features were described. I could also see how portraiture could have been pivotal in the public’s perception and how this shaped their career; after all this was the modern equivalent of painting a monarch and distributing to the masses.

Experiments, was exactly that how we as photographers are fixed to rules be that rules of thirds, the golden ratio or inverse law of light. The rules are there to be broken and this demonstrated that precisely. The accidental mistakes were embraced and use of double exposures with image manipulation today performed with the click of a mouse. It made me appreciate my days of working in a darkroom and galley cameras in the printing industry spending hours over a light box and bottle of opaque masking areas of the negative.

Bodies, revealed that with better and faster film motion could be frozen, capturing dance with such clarity and detail previously impossible to do. The photographs on display focused the eye on body parts or their tight crops. The catalogue quotes, ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.’ Edward Weston 1924

Documents expose the viewer to an era where portable cameras and new technology could show spontaneous events and moments in the everyday world. The 1930’s, was an era where photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Capa and Dorothea Lange documented the abject poverty, historical evidence uniting artistic control and a form of propoganda. The style of street photography that these pioneers employed influenced social attitudes as much as a visual impact. One image particularly stood out for both my brother and I was Migrant Mother, Lange 1936. The small baby being held in the mother’s arm almost obscured and the two children with their backs to the wall and mother’s facial expression are haunting.

In 1936, at age 32, Florence Owens Thompson was living in a tent with seven children during the height of the Great Depression. Thompson looks on, determined but weary, while her children turn their faces away. Lange’s composition may utilize the composition and emotion shown in many Virgin and Child scenes. Although we do not know if this resemblance is intentional or not, it does trigger a similar moral sentimentality. Copyright MoMA Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions a collection of photographs from extreme close-up to the worm’s eye. Everyday objects became unrecognisable and angles made them surreal. The combination of weird, macro and different perspectives made me look at my own work in a different light and that macro does not mean that I must obey the rules of convention.

I found the most valuable part of the exhibition was Objects, Perspectives and Abstractions it really made me think about how and why I photograph an everyday object or where I stand and what angle to take a photograph from. What message or do I even need to convey a message in my photography and that breaking all the rules is acceptable. I could apply that to my portrait work and focus on a body part rather than the what is expected or acceptable as a portrait.


‘A-Z of Modernist Photography’ (no date). Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/radical-eye-modernist-photography-sir-elton-john-collection/a-z (Accessed: 3 July 2017).
MoMA | Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936 (no date). Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/dorothea-lange-migrant-mother-nipomo-california-1936 (Accessed: 3 July 2017).