The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography at the Tate Modern

Exhibition: The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography 
Date: Thursday 9 February 2017 @ 3:00pm

When you think about Sir Elton John, photography is not one of the first creative mediums that springs to mind, being that he exists in a very aural profession, however, with the glamour of a showbiz lifestyle within the music industry of course the visual would come into play in everyday life e.g. when ‘putting on a show’ and presenting oneself to the public.  So I’m not sure why I was so surprised that Sir Elton was also into the visual art of photography.

The short video which accompanies the exhibition explains the background as to how he came to love photography to the point of wanting to collect it. When you find out how he got into photography as a visual aesthetic then you understand why he has become obsessed by it and why he now owns over 8000 prints.

Irving Penn, a photographer who I admire more for his approach and out of the box thinking rather than his photography per say, met with Sir Elton to take some distortion photographs and it was from then that Sir Elton was hooked.  There is only one of these distortion photographs on show in the exhibition but you see the ‘set’ in the short video; they are a great set.  The technique of moving the camera whilst taking the photograph creates a dragging effect which could be interpreted as the inner Sir Elton trying to get out of his face…. you may well have a different interpretation on this of course.

The collection focuses on the photography of the first half of the twentieth century when photography was ‘coming of age’.  As a result most of the prints are black and white, with a few exceptions which use colour as a post production addition e.g. tinting.  A lot of “artists at this time were transforming how photography was used and their experiments and innovations still impact how we see the world today,” [as stated in the free accompanying exhibition leaflet].

The exhibition includes so many well-known photographers and photographs in one exhibition and as an amateur photographer I couldn’t help but feel privileged to see some of these images in real life and give a big thanks to Sir Elton for recognising their value, sharing them with the general public and treating them with such respect and preserving their longevity.

The photographs are exhibited across 5 rooms: The Radical Eye, Portraits, Portraits / Experiments / Bodies, Documents and Objects / Perspectives / Abstractions.

Notably there are a large number of photographs taken by Man Ray on show in the exhibition and I wonder whether it was Man Ray’s photography that Sir Elton was specifically drawn to or whether it was the character that was Man Ray himself which is why he features so largely in the exhibition collection.  Maybe the accompanying exhibition guide, which unusually includes I believe every photograph in the exhibition at a reasonable price of £24.99 (before student discount), will explain – I have yet to read it from cover to cover but will.

I think the exhibition was well laid out, not too much to take in apart from maybe the last wall which had a lot of images in a large grid but these were well labelled.  I enjoyed seeing the work of the great photographers Penn, Weston, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Evans, Lange, Adams…. and the list goes on. All the photographs were apparently left in the frames which Sir Elton has them in normally at his home which adds to the intimacy of the collection. There were a lot of photographs of a geometric nature, I particularly liked one of the train tracks in the circular configuration called Rail Spider by Tonz Schneiders 1950, obviously from an engine turning point, which is also a great piece of recording / documentary and gives a sense of history.

There is more I could write about but this is a must see exhibition for anyone into photography, into history, visual aesthetic, in fact anyone would get something from this exhibition. So I will leave it here… this has definitely been an exhibition which will influence me both in my degree studies and in my photography in general.


Collectif,, Mavlin Shoair (2016) Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collec, : Tate Publishing, Limited.


3 thoughts on “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography at the Tate Modern

  1. Pingback: Part five – Project 1 – Exercise 5.2 | BA (Hons) Photography : A Different Perspective

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