For nearly 30 years, Elton John has kept hidden a significant part of his much-publicized life — until now.
“The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From the Sir Elton John Collection” is the first-ever loan exhibition at a new extension to London’s Tate Modern and showcases nearly 200 black-and-white prints from the 69-year-old pianists’ massive private collection.
Although the exhibition was several years in the making, the project was first revealed last spring.
“Nothing of this caliber and with this type of print has been seen in the U.K.,” Newell Harbin, director of The Sir Elton John Collection, explained. “The prints are so important. We chose all vintage prints between 1915 and 1950 and were very strict on our dates.”
In fact, both Harbin and John were pained to strictly enforce the time frame restriction and found the whittling down of the singer’s nearly 8,000-piece collection the most challenging part of the process.
Harbin was coy about revealing the show’s omitted pieces by name and hesitantly intimated that “one was a self-portrait by Wee-Gee” dating from the early Fifties.
For the past five years, Harbin — formerly with MoMA in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago — worked alongside Tate Modern curators Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian to fill five rooms of Switch House, the brand-new Herzog & de Meuron-designed wing of the museum.
“The exhibition shows this radical moment of the modernist period where artists are working in the dark rooms, splicing their negatives, doing their overlays, double exposures and wild cropping,” described Harbin of a period long before the ubiquitous influence of Photoshop. “It was such an experimental time.”
As the singer — born Reginald Dwight — struggled with sobriety in the late Eighties, it was these radical works that brought him solace. But for many years his impressive stock of works from groundbreaking figures like Man Ray, André Kertész and Edward Weston could only be seen by guests of the Oscar winner on every inch of wall space in his 18,000-square-foot Atlanta penthouse apartment.
“[Photography] really has been a grounding force to Elton,” Harbin continued.
But it’s an intense and often obsessive passion for amassing these prints that has supplied the artist with joie de vivre, particularly throughout his darkest moments.
“It’s funny but after rehab I wasn’t interested in anything that I’d collected before,” John said in an interview with curator Jane Jackson for the exhibition’s catalogue. “It’s a much healthier addiction to buy photographs, so I just switched. I felt as if my eyes were opened by photography. It was the most beautiful thing because I was getting sober, and feeling great about myself, and entering a new phase of my life. Photography became this incredible companion.”
The father of two young boys is occasionally moved to tears by the many haunting and provocative images in his collection. A particular favorite is Edward Steichen’s 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson in which the early film star’s unmistakable visage is cloaked in heavily texturized black lace.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” John continued in his interview with Jackson, the original director of his private collection with whom he purchased the bulk of his pieces. “This photograph is so perfect and has such a tactile look that it seems like you could actually touch the lace. And then there is the hidden meaning of this famous silent actress behind the veil.”
Late last year, the music legend hosted a private dinner within the gallery space at Tate Modern to benefit his Elton John AIDS Foundation.
“[Elton’s] sobriety has done so much and has brought so much into the world,” continued Harbin, who has overseen the private collection since 2011. “His energy is just infectious when he describes the work and explains how he collected it.”
John has a hands-on involvement in amassing his collection and does so with the emotional gusto he brings to nearly all aspects of his over-the-top lifestyle. In 1993, the U.K. native made headlines with his then world record purchase of Man Ray’s “Glass Tears” for a reported $193,000.
“He is a true collector,” Harbin explained. “He follows his heart and never follows the bottom line. The image has to move him and we are constantly, constantly collecting. I did the math once and we’re [adding] something like 1.5 pictures a week. I have never purchased a piece of art without his telling me to purchase a piece of art.”
Works from virtually unknown contemporary artists with no gallery representation hang alongside iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era masterpiece “Migrant Mother,” which Sir Elton describes as the “Mona Lisa of photography.”
“He treasures them all exactly same,” added Harbin. “If [a piece] moves him and speaks to him then that’s what is important.”
It’s clear the images are also striking a chord with the masses. Since opening its doors on Nov. 10, “The Radical Eye” has drawn crowds.
“Elton and David [Furnish] wanted to introduce the British public to these gems of photography,” Harbin asserted. “And to see [the works] as they’ve been living with them for years.”