The Radical Eye


Back to London on business this week. I had a course to run on Monday and had to stay over on Sunday night so I decided to take a train that got me into the big smoke around midday so that I could spend the afternoon doing something interesting.

When we visited Tate Modern during our short break in London before Christmas, I didn’t get chance to see the exhibition of Modernist photographs from Elton John’s collection. Tate Modern is so big, especially since the new extension– the Switch House – opened. But as I’m particularly interested in the work of radical, inventive photographers from the 20th century, typified by Man Ray, I was particularly keen to visit the exhibition. So this was a good opportunity.

Elton John began buying photographs in 1990, and has since then his collection has grown so that he has around 8,000 prints covering the walls of his apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s accumulated one of the world’s great private collections of modernist photographs. A relatively small proportion have been selected for the Tate’s exhibition. There were plenty of photographs by Man Ray and other well known 20th Century photographers, but there were discoveries too.

With over 70 artists and nearly 150 rare vintage prints on show from seminal figures including Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, this is a chance to take a peek inside Elton John’s home and delight in seeing such masterpieces of photography.

Like the reviewer from the Guardian I didn’t particularly like the picture frames,

often intrusive and over-elaborate; all that gold and distressed silver gilding, all those deluxe mats and rebates.

They weren’t really appropriate for the stark Modernist style images, but, like the reviewer, after a while, I stopped noticing them. The images themselves demanded my attention.

The photographs were displayed in 5 rooms, each taking a different theme. The second room was devoted to portraits of celebrities from the early 20th Century, mainly artists, writers and musicians. Elton John is clearly dazzled by celebrity (I didn’t find that surprising) but I found this the least interesting room. Although I could admire the skill of the photographers, I became bored with looking at a procession of famous faces and figures. The next room was more interesting. Although it still focused on the human form it concentrated on 

Experimental approaches to shooting, cropping and framing could transform the human body into something unfamiliar. (Exhibition website)

Ilse Bing Willem, Dancer 1932 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection © The Estate of Ilse Bing

Wilhelm Dancer by Ilse Bing

The next room concentrated on the work of documentary photographers including Dorothea Lang

The final room was probably my favourite, including photographs that pushed the boundaries of photography as art. .

It shows the still life genre reimagined by photographers who used the technical capabilities of the camera to reveal the beauty of everyday things. Objects captured at unconventional angles or extreme close-up become strange, even unrecognisable. (Exhibition website)

Alexander Rodchenko Shukov Tower 1920 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection © A. Rodchenko & V. Stepanova Archive, DACS, RAO 2016

Shukhov Tower (1929) by Aleksandr Rodchenko

My favourite photograph from the exhibition, though, was one of the first ones I saw – in the  first room – the View from the Berlin Radio Tower by László Moholy-Nagy

It looks like an abstract painting rather than a real landscape. It was apparently one of the first photographs bought by Elton John.

It’s always satisfying to discover a new artist when visiting an exhibition, and in this case I discovered two – both of them relatively unknown radical (artistically and politically) female photographers.

Tina Modotti was born in Italy and emigrated to the USA in 1913 when she was 16.

Modotti Hagemeyer

She had a fascinating life – she was an actress appearing in theatre, opera and several silent films. She modelled for the photographer Edward Weston, taking up photography herself and becoming his lover for a while. She moved to Mexico with him and got involved in radical politics joining the Communist Party . Later on she went to Russia and then to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. After the defeat of the Republicans she went back to Mexico and died from heart failure in Mexico City in 1942. Her photographs reflected her politics and passion for Mexico.


Workers Parade (1926) by Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti (1896-1942). Woman with Flag, 1928. Courtesy of Isabel Carbajal Bolandi, 2014. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Woman With Flag (1928) by Tina Modotti

Elfriede Stegemeyer was born in Germany in 1908, She studied art in Berlin and later in Cologne, where she joined the Cologne-based artistic circle Kölner Progressive in 1932. She travelled to Paris Ibiza and Eastern Europe, returning to Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. An anti-Nazi, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for high treason, but was released again.


Untitled (Electrical Lines) by Elfriede Stegemeyer

She produced photograms, photomontages, and still lives, and experimental compositions. Many of her photographs featured everyday objects, including drinking glasses  intended for a book Die Schule des Sehens.  Unfortunately, much of her work was destroyed in Berlin during World War II.


After the war, she worked under the pseudonym elde steeg.
She died in 1988.