The Radical Eye

The Radical Eye is an exhibition of modernist (approx 1920-1950) photographs from the Sir Elton John collection, on display at Tate Modern until May 7. The collection has been built up since 1990 and now has some 8000 items, of which about 150 are on display here. Images are displayed thematically: portraits, bodies, documentary, still life and experimental.

Photography in the exhibition is forbidden, but there is always the chance for a few sneaky iPhone shots before getting the tap on the shoulder.

Let’s get the only real criticism out of the way quickly. Everything is displayed in the heavy gold and silver frames used in Elton’s homes, and some are really over-elaborate and tasteless. Thankfully, he has a better eye for a photograph than for a frame, and there are some beautiful images here, and some very important ones (e.g., Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’) He also has a real enthusiasm for his collection, as seen in the walkthrough video which is played on a loop in a side gallery.

Perhaps the least effective display is in the second gallery space, showing portraits. The wall-notes explain that artists and sitters used photography to push the connections of portraiture by innovations in pose, composition and cropping. Apart from the Steiglitz portrait of Georgia O’Keefe (all in the left-hand part of the frame and looking left) I thought the images rather conventional. However, as with my reaction to the Donovan exhibition last year, I recognise that this is because the portraits of the 20s to the 40s have laid the foundations for modern portraiture.

In that space, I particularly enjoyed six ‘corner portraits‘ made by Irving Penn in 1948, where he placed his subjects into a tight acute-angled space formed by two stage flats, causing them to respond to the shape of the space.

An associated section, titled ‘Bodies’ is less conventional, including unusual poses, angles and perspectives, and isolation of body parts. Movement is emphasised by use of shutter speed, either to freeze or blur.

For me, the most interesting section was the documentary photographs, mainly social documentary including some of the FSA images by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. ‘Migrant Mother‘ is iconic, but I was particularly struck by the similarity between the girl in Lange’s ‘The Damage is Already Done’ and Evans’ portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. Both stare straight out of the image with a look somewhere between pain and disapproval.

The introductory wall-notes tell us that the exhibition ‘charts the changing emphasis from the subject of an image to the visual qualities of the photograph itself, irrespective of what it represents’. This is particularly seen in the still-life and experimental photography displays. Images are double-exposed, distorted, montaged, solarised and generally manipulated in creative ways. There is experimentation with perspective, including the birds-eye and worms-eye views by Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko.

Arguably the most effective (well, my choice anyway) of these, because of the way that it emphasises both the subject matter and the photographic process, is Man Ray’s image of Max Ernst, contact-printed from a shattered glass plate negative.



An enjoyable and though-provoking exhibition. The catalogue is worth buying as a reminder of the images and also for two major essays and an interview with Sir Elton on connoisseurship and collecting.


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