The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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