The collection of Sir Elton John counts more than 8000 photographs according to a recent interview. What I saw at the Tate Modern in London was nothing short of spectacular. A no fuss exhibition with nothing more than a short stencil intro to each room and a 4:30 minute video interview in a side-room with the man himself. The photographs mostly hung side-by-side on white walls at eye level. The light good and the ability to get in close, unencumbered.
I have traveled far and wide and have seen many, many exhibitions of wonderful photography, but rarely as many superb quality images in one place. When each year I attend exhibitions, I often think of the number of ‘fillers’ versus ‘keepers’. Elton John’s photographs selected for the exhibition at the Tate Modern, are all superb, all vintage and in near mint condition. 160 photographs, each one perfect. No fillers.
One thing that I found particularly gratifying with this collection, which spans from roughly 1920 to 1950, is the size of the photographs. There are no 100 cm x 150 cm (3 foot by 5 foot) images of the Rhine and its banks, or Italian beach scenes. Only small images, often contact printed, that you have to get in close to read, see, admire and truly enjoy.
When you consider the speed of film available in the day these photographs were taken, and the diversity of papers to print on, the success of every photograph in this exhibition is mesmerizing. You stand before a 24 mm x 36 mm contact print of the Underwater Swimmer by Kertesz, your nose mere inches away, and you feel how modernism must have gripped the photographers building on the constructivists’ myriad angles, shooting from above, from below, achieving some of the results that we today mimic and aspire to. The sun’s reflections in the water, the striped swim trunks, the distorted thigh, the elongated limbs of the swimmer cutting through the water…. this is 1917 we are talking about! It is among the greatest and most inspiring photographs of the 20th century.
Move along to the side-by-side pairing of Noire et Blanche by Man Ray printed positive and negative in frames that Sir Elton says normally hang above his bed and would surely kill him, if they should ever fall. Death by Man Ray. There are surely worse ways to go. Each print is perfect on beautiful textured paper, that one can only dream about. The tonal range in these photographs is among the best I have ever seen.
Each photograph in this exhibition is consistently of the highest quality I have seen. There are no fillers here. The photographs are not necessarily expensive or iconic, though most are, of course. The photographs are by many photographers, many well known, but some almost forgotten and deserving of revival. All are framed with flare and you are close enough to see your breath on the thin glass separating you from the masterpiece itself, be it a Man Ray, Andre Kertesz or Emmanuel Sougez. It is truly exceptional company for any aspiring or committed photographer.
And then there are the frames…. I confess that most of my photographs hang framed in plain, boring black or natural wood frames, but there is something here. Why can a great photograph not be framed in a great frame, gilt, hand-carved and heavy. Why not indeed! I had heard lots about the frames in the Sir Elton John collection, but seeing them with my own eyes, I must say, I like it. It works. I will have to go and revisit some photographs on my walls and perhaps buy a new frame or two.
The way forward: Small, intimate photographs of the highest quality. Hand printed and exquisitely framed, each one inviting you to engage at very close range.
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