We Brits were lucky to have Sir Elton John’s photography collection exhibited from 10 Nov 2016 to 07 May 2017, at the Tate Modern, London. I’d been looking forward to this for months and it did not disappoint. There were hundreds of original and mostly vintage prints in five rooms, along with an exhibition film. Although the exhibition is now over, I dearly hope that this body of work travels more widely so that more people are able to enjoy it. For those of you who didn’t know elton John is a very serious collector of photography, perhaps have a look at this article (and video).
The only contentious aspect to the exhibition was the framing of some of the photographs. Sir Elton explained in the accompanying audiotape that he can’t abide by ‘boring black frames’ and chooses to frame his photographs individually, uniquely (and often flamboyantly). I didn’t find that the sometimes very heavy gold and champagne frames entirely overwhelmed the photographs, but perhaps that’s because the photographs were so good. I do think they’d have sung more loudly from less overwhelming frames, however. But hey, Sir Elton bought these photographs at staggering expense and chose to share them with us, so being overly critical of the framing wouldn’t seem quite right. Just think of Sir Elton’s earrings and his attire and you’ll have an idea of his taste in frames.
I was absolutely transfixed, not only by the wonderful photographs, but the thoughts they left me with (and I will come back to this later). There are few places on earth you could walk into a room and walk past the likes of Irving Penn, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Dorothea Lange and many more in one room, let alone do this five times over. Although Sir elton’s primary passion is modernist work, he has since expanded into colour and contemporary photograph as well. This exhibition, however, was a pure concentration of the 1920s to 1970s, with a little bit of earlier and later work. The best part, for me, was discovering ‘new wonders’. One such example is the below photograph by Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. It was the first print seen upon entering. It is ever so simple and uses visual memes that may be familiar today, not only due to some of Cartier-Bresson’s Paris photos from the mid 20th century, but contemporary aerial work. This image, however, is from 1928.
Perhaps the key take home message for me was a simple reminder as to the power of simplicity. Photography is very different today. It has become hugely competitive and is now an ‘activity’ with many guides, workshops and ‘rules’. What I loved about this exhibition was the sense that the explorations and experiments of the many photographers are not complicated. They are in fact the opposite.
The vast majority of photographs were incredibly simple. They utilised clear ideas, excellent lighting and camera work and weren’t trying too hard to deliver. The result was a very relaxed space. I am not sure if you know what I mean by that, but the rooms all felt rather calm (frames aside). It is always tempting to ‘try hard’ with photography, but I have always felt that is perhaps our biggest enemy. We can try hard to learn. We can care passionately about what we do, but those efforts are most effective when they culminate in a calm and enjoyable creative experience. Visiting this exhibition brought me right back to what I love about photography and part of that is a sense that anything is possible. Finding simplicity that cuts through the complexity of ourselves is the greatest challenge and perhaps what’s most satisfying in the special photographs we succeed in making.