The Radical Eye

This exhibition, in the new extension of the Tate Modern, is part of Elton John’s enormous photographic collection which he holds in his home in Atlanta. Setting up the exhibition took about four years. It consists of almost 200 photographs spanning the period from 1917 to 1950. It is almost overwhelming in its extent but also overwhelming because the photographs have been framed in gold frames. I found this distracting in the beginning but as I went on the frames got less important.

The first section of this exhibitions is entitled Documents. It was surreal to be looking at Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother from 1936. Elton John is very particular that his images are prints made within five years of the authors making the image. So this was the actual Migrant Mother.

I have always felt ambivalent about this images because the woman in the picture never benefited from its subsequent success. Having said that its clarity and poignancy is very moving. This and the image of the child are John’s favourites in his collection as he tells us on this video.

Then there is a section on Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions. Knowing the limitations of the equipment and developing materials of this time it is astounding what these photographers were capable of producing. Solarisation, for example, is something we can create today in Photoshop in a matter of a few clicks. At this time the photographers had to understand exactly what was happening in this process and create it.

Portraits play a big part in this exhibition. Irving Penn’s selection of famous people photographed in a tight “v” shaped corner is wonderful. The idea is simple and by getting the sitters to behave differently he brings out the different characters. (1). Many Ray’s “Noire et Blanche” apparently hang above Elton John’s bed when not on exhibition.

Lazloly Moholy Nagy’s view from the Berlin Tower is also there. All these images about which I have read are there before my eyes. Man Ray’s “Larmes” almost leaves the wall it is so vibrant.

If it were possible I would love to visit this exhibition every day for a week so that I could walk by each photograph and look deeply at it.

What a priviledge to be the guardian of this collection. I understand that Elton John intends to leave some of his collection to the Tate. That would be such a generous thing to do.


  1. The Guardian. 2017. The Radical Eye review – Elton John’s ravishing photography collection | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2017].