Singer, songwriter, father, fundraiser, philanthropist – and not necessarily in that order -Sir Elton John, a man of many talents, has recently focused his attention on adding ‘collector’ to that list. As he has confessed many a time, when Elton does something, he doesn’t just do it once or twice, he invests his time, money, energy and soul, over and over again, until he has exhausted it to the point of rehab, burn out, million-dollar spending sprees and life-threatening illness. He is the king of accidental excess, including in his back-catalogue of purchases everything from flowers (between 1996 and 1997 he reportedly spent £293,000.00 on floral arrangements), to Aston Martins, Bentleys and Jaguars (of which he has an entire garage or three). “As you know,” he once told The Guardian, “I can't have one pair of shoes, I can't have one CD, I can't have one bunch of flowers, one car, one ornament, I mean, that's my mindset.”
This month, Tate Modern London has opened its doors to thousands of visitors who have flocked to see a slightly more unexpected collection of Sir John’s. It’s not flashy or flamboyant, as is so characteristic of the man himself, but instead is subtle, refined, considered, and incredibly classy. That, I hasten to add, is not the surprise – Sir John has always been an admirable character in a class entirely his own, but for a man whose life has been repeatedly ‘papped’ and pulled and torn apart in the press, his appreciation for photography is a paradox of sorts. Rather than nursing a grudge, The Radical Eye commends many a name that offered entirely new perspectives during the period between the 1920s and 1950s and pushed the boundaries of portraiture and documentary photography – with Man Ray, Irving Penn, André Kertész, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams among the curation.
“I got sober in 1990 and had my eyes opened,” says Elton in the exhibition’s audio guide, “I looked at things in a different light and photography was the thing that attracted me.” The collection would be poignant enough to stand alone without the superstar’s name to support it, but the ties between him and each photograph are incredibly personal. Even the frames are his own, hung and arranged almost identically to how they are in his home. Two of the prints, Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche, hang above his bed, as they bring him so much pure joy, and the beautiful frames are no accident either. He treats them like “children”, insistent that each one is taken down now and again to “rest”, and the enjoyment he gets from every one – some no bigger than a credit card – is genuine and touching to experience.