The Radical Eye. Modernist photography from the Sir Elton John collection. Tate Modern November to May 2017
The Sir Elton John Photography Collection is one of the largest privately owned collections in the world (8000 works), ranging from the beginning of the 20th century to today. Its focus is “modernist photography”, from the objective clarity of modernist portraits to experimental darkroom manipulations and abstractions. It enables the viewer to see from the Bauhaus, the social commitment of early documentary photography and the imaginative surrealism how the ways in which the world was seen through photography changed. The exhibition is divided into five parts: portraits, experiments, documents, bodies and objects.
For the purpose of where I am in my OCA learning currently I will focus mainly on the portraits and documents section and detail the others at more appropriate times in my learning journey. I will say however that I was stunned by the breadth of his collection and the numerous and varied images of historical importance that are in this one collection. The curator of the exhibition Jane Jackson interviewed Sir Elton John Elton John to discuss his collection and the importance of photography in his life. He talks of how surprised he was to find that photographers could achieve things that he thought only painters could do, such as distortions, rayographs and light abstractions; he says that “for me photography is a journey of discovery” (Baker et al., n.d.), giving him pleasure and in an artistic way increasing his wellbeing.
The portraits show a range of technical and psychological styles, from Man Ray’s portraits of the surrealist artists and thinkers, to Edward Steichen’s Gloria Swanson, to Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe and to Tina Modotti’s studies of Edward Weston. I am going to comment on those that impacted on me the most as I viewed them.
There were many interesting self- portraits, of which one that is still imprinted on me is Herbert Bayer’s self-portrait (“Humanly Impossible”, 1932).
I really could not work out at first how this image of a man with an arm truncated arm was achieved. Then I realised it was a montage, in fact this is the original montage. Sir Elton John asks whether the image is about Bayer or about Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
(Monroe et al., 2017)
This self-portrait by Arthur Fellig (Weegee) circa 1955 is technically interesting; it was probably achieved using distorting mirrors and double exposures putting two negatives together as faint repetitions of the image can be seen especially around his left eye.
I found Man Ray’s “Self-portrait in bathrobe” (1929) somewhat at odds with his other work in the collection; In contrast to the solarisations, rayographs and the glamourized portraits of others it is strangely ordinary and realistic. It is quite a contrast to his celebrated “Glass tears” (1932) which was a photograph that again led me to ask how he did it; apparently it was a mannequin with the glass affixed to it.
(My Favorite Arts, 2017)
I found many of the portraits taken in the 1920’s stiff and posed and generally disliked then. However you cannot help but admire Edward Steichen’s “Gloria Swanson” (1924). Sir Elton John describes it as “perfect and has such a tactile look that it seems like you could actually touch the lace” (Baker et al., n.d.); he also alludes to the hidden meaning of this silent actress behind the veil. It is direct, haunting and alluring, extremely 3 dimensional.
(Iconic Photos, 2017)
I was drawn to Brassai’s “A costume for two” (1931) with two men sharing a suit, probably still posed but full of tension, life and possibilities.
I admired the Irving Penn series of Portraits posed in corners, in particular Noel Coward (1948) and Duke Ellington (1948).
(New.liveauctioneers.com, 2017) (Pinterest, 2017)
He used parts of a left over set from a commercial shoot, and made portraits of writers, artists, musicians, politicians and other celebrities. They were asked to position themselves in a small corner and having viewed some of the others in the series since it is interesting how their personalities were revealed as they reacted to the claustrophobic limits of the setting. Penn said that “limiting the subjects movements seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding onto them” (text accompanying exhibition portraits).
Portraits of photographers are always interesting. Tina Modotti’s “Edward Western with his camera” (1923) where the perspective that she used juxtaposes his head with the cameras, as if she was comparing the human eye and the mechanical world; the camera’s lens appears to dominate.
In the 1930s photographers enabled viewers to see some of the less palatable aspects of society, marrying creative appeal to gain viewers trust in their visual records. They combine historical evidence, propaganda and the appeal of art.
The documentary photographs that interested me the most were the portraits, in particular the depression era photography which is distinct from the celebrity studio portraits and self-portraits that I’ve illustrated above. These portraits are scientific documents of social types.
It was a privilege to see “Migrant mother” (Dorothea Lange 1936) first hand. This is an iconic timeless image of the hardship of a woman and her seven children who’d sold the tyres from her car for food and living on wild birds caught by the children. It was taken at a camp for seasonal agricultural workers when she was working for the Farm Security Administration as part of a team of photographers documenting the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions. Of the 160,000 images taken for the Resettlement Administration, Migrant Mother has become the most iconic picture of the Depression. Lange said when photographing that it needed her total attention, Sir Elton John points out of the “photographs she took the pain in them- it just grabs you… “It’s an exhausting photograph (Baker et al, n.d), and not so much that this is such a sad photograph, as that it is a resignation of this woman’s suffering.
(Migrant Mother and Migrant Mother, 2017)
Lange’s The damage is already done ( 1936) left a bigger impression on me probably as unlike Migrant Mother, it was the first time I had seen it, this portrait also reaches out to you and has a story all of its own which as a viewer I wanted to know more about. Though the portrait is titled “The damaged child” on the back of Sir Elton John’s print Lange has written “The damage is already done”. This child shot against a harsh tin background, exudes determination and steely character even though she is grimy, grubby, in ragged clothing and has a black eye. She is not flinching in front of the camera and looks older than her years. Maybe it is possible that she will rise above any damage done?
(The Museum of Modern Art, 2017)
Another Lange image “White angel bread line” (1933) also struck me as particularly poignant as the migrant man with tin cup depressingly leans on fence behind a queue. I think it’s the way she’s captured his look of grim determination that arrests me.
This the first time also that I had seen any Walker Evans photography and it had an equally strong impact on me. Floyd Burroughs (1936) an Albania tenant farmer taken with a shallow depth of field extracts him from his start background. It is his look of ease but resignation which stops me in my tracks. He was known for finding dignity in ordinary lives and this photograph illustrates this.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)
Outside of portraits there were two other images in the documents section that particularly interested me. The first is Helen Levitt’s images of children at play in New York in 1939. As I understand it the Leica camera revolutionised street photography, with its range of film speeds it was able to capture movement and difficult lighting. This image shows both.
She began as an art teacher seeking to document children’s street chalk drawings and expanded from there. She associated with Walker Evans on the late 1930s though her street photography was much rawer and more playful than his.
Robert frank was an improvisational street photographer and this image showcases this. I was struck by this photograph as the technical quality appears to be prior to that time but his candid composition is of more of the 1940/50s.
Whilst many of the portraits in this collection were artists, writers, musicians or celebrities, I was able to see from the portrait work in particular how from the early 20th century photography moved from not being seen as art to the artists pushing the conventions of portraiture, and the period covered by this exhibition is certainly crucial. This period in particular with its growth to include documentary, surrealist, realist, fashion, and celebrity, brought a harmony between technique and subject. Sir Elton John believes that there’s not a painted portrait that is better than a photographic portrait. I will look more closely at painted portraits to see whether agree with his analysis.
Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http:///doyle.com/auctions/16bp01-rare-books-autographs-photographs/catalogue/406-brassai-1899-1984-un-costume-pour [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
Baker, S., Mavlian, S., Harbin, N. and John, E. (n.d.). The radical eye.
Christies.com. (2017). ROBERT FRANK (B. 1924) , Paris, 1949. [online] Available at: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/robert-frank-b-1924-paris-1949-5544483-details.aspx [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].
Collections.vam.ac.uk. (2017). Humanly Impossible | Bayer, Herbert | V&A Search the Collections. [online] Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O128502/humanly-impossible-photograph-bayer-herbert/ [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
Ades, D (nd) Instument of a new vision: photography in the first machine age. In: Baker, S., Mavlian, S., Harbin, N. and John, E. (n.d.). The radical eye.
Iconic Photos. (2017). Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen. [online] Available at: https://iconicphotos.org/2009/10/05/gloria-swanson-by-edward-steichen/ [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
Laurencemillergallery.com. (2017). Helen Levitt – Artists – Laurence Miller Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.laurencemillergallery.com/artists/helen-levitt?view=slider#3 [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].
Migrant Mother, 1. and Migrant Mother, &. (2017). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, Dorothea Lange | Artspace.com. [online] Artspace. Available at: https://www.artspace.com/dorothea_lange/migrant_mother_nipomo_california [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].
Monroe, M., Taylor, E., Kennedy, J., II, E., Lennon, J., McCartney, P., Loren, S., Presley, E., Kennedy, J. and Warhol, A. (2017). Weegee Self-Distortion. [online] Getty Images. Available at: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/distorted-self-portrait-of-american-photographer-weegee-mid-news-photo/520809084#distorted-selfportrait-of-american-photographer-weegee-mid-twentieth-picture-id520809084 [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
My Favorite Arts. (2017). Self Portrait in Bathrobe by Man Ray. [online] Available at: https://theartstack.com/artist/man-ray/self-portrai-1 [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
New.liveauctioneers.com. (2017). online] Available at: https://new.liveauctioneers.com/item/33437626_irving-penn-noel-coward-gravure [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
Pinterest. (2017). Irving Penn – Corner Portraits 1948. [online] Available at: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/309341068143875769/ [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
Photographyicon.com. (2017). Master Of Photography: Edward Weston | Icon Photography School. [online] Available at: https://photographyicon.com/edward-weston/ [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. (2017). Walker Evans | [Floyd Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama] | The Met. [online] Available at: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/275843 [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].
The Museum of Modern Art. (2017). Dorothea Lange. Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma. 1936 | MoMA. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/56493 [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].
Please note: Any images by other photographers used on this site are accredited and are being used for personal research and educational purposes only.