Say the word “album” in connection with Sir Elton John, and your first thought is of the dozens of music albums he’s released over the years. But he’s also assembled a remarkable album of photographs -- a collection Anthony Mason is about to share with us:
Nearly 200 photographs went on display at London’s Tate Modern this past week. The pictures in The Radical Eye, an exhibition of pioneering images from the 1920s to the ‘50s, all came from the collection of one man: Sir Elton John.
He began to build his collection, which now includes nearly 8,000 photographs, 25 years ago. It’s now considered one of the most important in the world.
Many are hung floor-to-ceiling in his 17,000-square-foot apartment in Atlanta. “It’s kind of taken over my life,” he said. “I must buy at least three or four photographs a week. I just bought three this morning.”
Sir Elton’s passion developed during a period of personal upheaval. In 1990, after selling off his vast collection of art and furniture, he went into rehab for alcohol addiction. When he came out, he replaced it with a new addiction: photography.
“I’d never noticed photography as an art form before,” he told Mason. “Even thought I’d had my photograph taken by a lot of great photographers.”
Had something changed? “Yeah, I’d gotten sober. I was seeing with different eyes. I mean, when you get sober, you see everything in a different context. You have clarity. You have a bit more wisdom, hopefully.”
“The fact that it accompanied sobriety meant what?” Mason asked.
“I don’t know. I really don’t. It was like a gift. Like, ‘You got sober. And now, look at this gift I’m gonna give you.’ Because I’ve learnt so much from collecting photography.”
“What do you think you suddenly saw?”
“I saw beauty that I’d never seen before.”
The picture that changed everything for him? Man Ray’s 1932 image called “Glass Tears.” “It was a huge leap,” he said about acquiring it. “It was like a Cape Canaveral leap!”
He bought a vintage print at auction in 1993 for almost $200,000 -- a record price for a photograph at the time.
He said he wasn’t monitoring the auction when it happened. “No, of course not. I just said, ‘Get it at all costs.’”
“And when you found out what the cost was, what did you think?”
“Wow! I thought I’d gone nuts. I thought, ‘Well, f****!’” John said. “And everybody in my organization thought I’d gone nuts. But that was a big, big step -- that was the first major step, I think, of getting to be a serious collector.”
The Tate Modern show features vintage prints made by the artists themselves, including Andre Kertesz’s postage stamp-sized “Underwater Swimmer,” printed in 1917.
“You couldn’t believe it was taken in 1917, right? It could have been taken yesterday. And it’s so beautiful,” John said.
There is also Edward Steichen’s portrait of silent film star Gloria Swanson from 1924 (“You can practically feel the lace”); and Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era portrait of a “Migrant Mother” (“It’s a bit like Mona Lisa, I think. Her face, the sorrow, the anxiety. This is like, ‘Am I going to be able to feed my child the next day?’”).
“I’m not a minimalist, as you know,” John said.
“You don’t tiptoe into things.”
“No, I don’t. I go for it.”
“Why is that?”
“I was born in 1947, grew up when times were quite hard. I just found solace in objects. That may be strange to people, but it wasn’t strange to me. And objects and music kind of got me through the bad times, when I was, you know, collecting. I’ve always collected.”
And he’ll collect controversial work -- unsettling images, like the photograph of the falling man, taken on 9/11 by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. It took him two years to acquire it.
“Why did you want it?” Mason asked.
“It’s the most beautiful image of something so tragic,” John said. “It’s probably one of the most perfect photographs ever taken. It’s not a shot that a lot of people probably would want to hang on their wall. And we’ve never hung it on our wall.”
“Did you have any reservations about your own interest in it in any way?”
“No, because this is an historical event. It’s as important as the naked girl running down the road on Vietnam, and I have that. The little boy in Syria recently, just sitting there on the chair? I desperately want that photograph. And we’re trying to get it.
“It’s just important to have them.”
His homes in Atlanta, England and Beverly Hills have become galleries for his obsession. But now the Sir Elton John Collection is on a bigger stage.
Mason asked, “How do you feel about having a show at the Tate?”
“I’m honored. I’m very excited. And I’m interested to see what people will feel about it,” he replied. “Because I want people who’ve never seen a photograph before -- because my name might draw them in -- to see, ‘What’s this all about?’ will come away thinking, ‘Oh, I really love this. This is great’ -- like me!”
For more info:
- The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, at Tate Modern, London (through May 7, 2017) | Purchase tickets
- Exhibition book: “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” by Mavlian and Baker (Aperture); Available in Hardcover and Paperback formats