Elton John – pardon, Sir Elton John – is, for better or worse, a national treasure and global celebrity. We are used to seeing him on stage, sweating over his piano in the limelight, alternating between belting out soulful anthems or cooing sensitive ballads. We take part – no, look up to – his impossibly glamorous social life, epitomised by his annual charity ball. And we follow, sometimes with schadenfreude, the tabloid fodder that is his marriage to David Furnish and his adopted children. But we don’t usually think of Elton as an intellectual of true artistic discernment. And yet that is the side which is on display at an exhibition entitled Radical Eye, at Tate Modern until 7 May 2017.
It all started, as Elton explains in a video interview shown at the exhibition, when he got sober in 1990. In 1989, Elton has sold almost all his possessions, as if to make way for a new life. Within the year, he was paid a visit by art dealer David Fahey, who brought with him a selection of modernist photographs. Elton was immediately enchanted and bought six of them on the spot. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the genre, building a collection of such importance that it has been brought all the way from Sir Elton’s Atlanta home to the Switch House at Tate Modern.
Many of the photographs on display, such as Man Ray’s Tears, are iconic, and seeing them in the original is like meeting a celebrity up close. All of the photos shown convey the excitement of a technology in its infancy, an art form that was new and continuously evolving, as cameras and films offered new opportunities to make us see reality in different ways or – in some cases – see a reality that otherwise we could not have witnessed. We observe children playing in the streets of 1920s Harlem and visit impoverished tenant farmers of Alabama, wracked with bitter deprivation. Of all these socially aware images, I found Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother the most captivating of. It shows the face of a woman who is careworn and tired, and yet alert with apprehension. But what is even more moving is how her children have turned their little faces away, either in shame or in fear, or both – burying them in their mother’s hair as if they could find protection and refuge there.
These pictures are works of art very much of their time, yet like all enduring art, they have something to tell us even now. They are able to move and excite an audience almost a century later, able to tell us something vivid, fresh and new despite their age. What is perhaps most striking about them is their economy: these photographs are simple, often tiny in size, and yet have an instant and powerful impact on the viewer.
We live in an age saturated by photography. What used to be the province of professional photographers – people able to afford a Leica – is now a medium of expression open to billions of people around the world. Social media, that content-hungry monster, continuously encourages us to snap and share our own lives, our experiences. But they are more than mere depictions of a moment: they’re stories. As Snapchat chief Evan Spiegel, explains: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”And yet, how may of these stories stick? Apart from our friends and followers, who really cares about them? Do we do art a favour when we measure the quality of photograph by the number of likes it attracts on Insta?
The modernist photography on show makes us think again what a photography is for, and what a considered, well-thought out photograph can be. How far it can be pushed, defamiliarised, distorted, how it can be made more powerful: by consciously thinking about process and technique, framing, perspective, choice of subject and even processing and printing itself. There’s no reason why the same questions could not be applied to smartphone photography. To achieve this, however, takes time, and in a world where sharing is instant, the desire to be ever-present on social media becomes a distraction; the enemy of art.
A final thought the exhibition prompted in me was the connection between photography and writing. In my own writing, I almost always draw on my own life – so much so, that some of my stories are really just a form of reportage, a stylised journal. Sometimes I give myself a hard time that the world about which I write, with its people and places and things, aren’t invented; that I didn’t imagine them. Looking at great photography today gave me the comforting reassurance that an art form that takes reality as its subject need not be mundane: that in artfully reflecting that which already exists, we can create an expression that’s radically new.