In Depth

See Elton John's photography collection at Tate Modern

Entitled The Radical Eye, the extensive exhibition of modernist images features iconic works from the likes of Man Ray and Irving Penn

Sir Elton John isn't one to do things by halves. The singer began collecting 20th-century black-and-white photographs in 1991 – with no prior interest in the medium – courtesy of LA specialist David Fahey. The purchase sparked an insatiable 25-year-long obsession with collecting fine-art photography. Today, he has one of the finest private collections in the world, comprising around 8,000 prints and counting.

For the next few months, the walls of John's Atlanta apartment – which is home to the bulk of his collection – will be a little bare as a fraction of it goes on display at Tate Modern. The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is the first UK exhibition of its kind and features nearly 200 images from more than 60 seminal artists, including Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, Andre Kertesz and Edward Steichen.

The exhibition focuses on images from the 1920s to the 1950s, and features some of the rarest and most iconic photographs of the modernist era. Highlights include a 1917 contact print of Andre Kertesz's Underwater Swimmer and Irving Penn's striking "corner portraits" series, where the photographer's subjects – among them Salvador Dali, Gypsy Rose Lee and Noel Coward – pose in a confined space. Man Ray's 1932 masterpiece, Glass Tears, which has become The Radical Eye's poster image, was purchased by John back in 1993 for £112,500. Then valued at a fraction of the price, he recalls feeling he'd "gone stark raving mad" for having bought it. Today, the print is said to be worth in excess of £1m.

Indeed, once undermined by critics and curators, photography is increasingly accepted as a valid fine-art medium. Modernism and the host of diverse talent associated with the genre certainly played a vital role and the movement is known as photography's "coming of age".

"Collecting photography over the past 25 years has opened my eyes – it's one of the most important and progressive art forms of the 20th century," said John. "I want everyone to go away [from the exhibition] thinking about the artists behind these images and marvel at how they experimented and changed the way we see things forever. They were going where no other photographer had gone before. I consider them true adventurers and what they did was extraordinary."

Just as the singer readily admits his ignorance of fine-art photography before his encounter with Fahey, he is keen to share his collection – which he describes as "the artistic love of my life" – with enthusiasts and amateurs alike. 

"Many people may not even realise I have this collection," he says, "but art should be seen. That's why I'm so happy that Tate Modern is sharing these iconic works with the public. These photographs have given me so much pleasure for a long time and I hope visitors will experience as much joy in seeing the works as I have had in finding them."  

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection runs from 10 November 2016 to 7 May 2017 at Tate Modern. Tickets are £16.50; tate.org.uk

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