A uniquely personal survey of three decades of modernist photography opened in London this week. The extraordinary collection of 200 vintage prints, now showing in The Radical Eye at Tate Modern, includes seminal works by leading figures experimenting in the form from 1917 to the 1950s – Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti and Aleksandr Rodchenko to name but a few.
The photographs all belong to the private collection of the pop star Elton John. In an interview to promote the exhibition, the British musician talks about his almost obsessive approach to collecting. He appears driven by two conflicting impulses: the desire to own iconic images by early pioneers, such as Man Ray's Glass Tears 1932 and Underwater Swimmer, Hungary by André Kertész, and a fascination with social documentary photography that captures the human condition. An impressive array of portraits, such as Irving Penn's portrait of Salvador Dalí, sits somewhere in between.
John began collecting in 1990 when he bought a dozen black-and-white, mostly fashion photographs, by Irving Penn, Horst P Horst and Herb Ritts. The number of works he owns now stands at about 8,000 and his must surely rank as a world-class collection. Unlike many collectors, his buying habits are not dictated by hopes of financial gain. As he explains:
“Once I started collecting, I became avaricious about it. I moved to Atlanta [into] an 18,000 square foot [1,670 square metre] apartment.
“I didn’t need the space, I just wanted to put the photography on the walls. And that’s how it became the love of my life in art terms.”
John hopes others will be swept away by this most accessible and immediate of art forms, just as he was more than 25 years ago. “That’s what photographs do, your imagination comes alive and you wonder what was going on when the photograph was taken ...
“It’s my favourite art form in the whole world.”
Visitors to this show will find it hard to disagree.
• The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is being shown at Tate Modern, London, until May 7.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.