Sir Elton John's Photographic Hoard - Dear Dead Days by Edward Lucie-Smith
There are some things you notice pretty damn quick about the rich selection from Sir Elton John’s huge collection of classic Modernist photography, now on view at Tate Modern. First its emphasis, though certainly not to the exclusion of all else, on photographs of people: generally (though not always) famous people. After all, Sir Elton is a major sleb himself, so why shouldn’t he be interested in likenesses of those who fall, roughly speaking, into the same category as himself? During the High Modernist period covered by this exhibition, photography played a major role in constructing the whole concept of celebrity, even more so, perhaps than it actually does now, in the age of Youtube and Instagram.
Today you only have to go to your computer screen, or even to your mobile phone, and in a moment your fingertips will have conjured up for you the image of almost any person who is currently famous, or who has enjoyed a moment of fame during the past few decades.
The temptation to murmur ‘dear dead days’ when confronted with these undoubtedly fascinating images is reinforced by the elegance of the presentation. The photographs are beautifully framed – nothing here of the dreary museum framing one has become accustomed to in museum presentations of photographs – or, for that matter, of master drawings and prints. And they are grouped together in ways that suggest how they are usually displayed in the owner’s numerous residences – most of all in his main headquarters in the American city of Atlanta, Georgia. One can almost hear the ice tinkling in an imaginary glass containing a fresh-made mint julep as one pauses to look at them.
It’s obvious from press reactions, and in particular from a laudatory double spread, written by none other than Sir Nicholas Serota, that appeared in the Evening Standard as soon as the exhibition opened, that Tate is hoping for a windfall – indeed it may in fact already have established terms that will ensure that it gets one. Tate doesn’t have a good photography collection. It only started collecting photographs in 2009. Before that, it left exploration of this category of image making to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Sir Elton’s photographic hoard, said to total 8000 items, would if acquired in its entirety, completely transform this aspect of its holdings.
There’s no doubt that a result of this kind would represent a great coup for an institution that, despite its grandee status, is perpetually short of funds for major acquisitions. The prices of historic High Modernist photographs, printed very close to the moment when the image was actually made, using the processes then in use, now for the most part obsolete, have risen enormously. Elton John has in the past paid what seemed like eye-watering prices at auction for some of the famous images included in the show. The fact is that now, not so many years after they were purchased, those acquisitions begin to seem like bargains.
Yet one also needs to note one awkward aspect. These images were made in a different technological context from the one existing today. You may admire their subtlety, their ingenuity, their use in some instances of all kinds of technological trickery specific to what was then at the disposal of the photographers who made them, but this is not the way photographs are made now, following the digital revolution.
To note and in a way minor but still vital point – photographic images made in the present day for exhibition purposes tend to be a lot bigger in scale, which radically alters their effect. And of course,there is today’s emphasis on full colour. The Tate show is almost entirely an exercise in black and white, though colour, hand-applied, peeks in shyly here and here. The only what one might call ‘carried over’ technique is the use of collage, though now, of course, there is no need to use scissors or to combine negatives when making a print. You can stick images together digitally. And in addition to that, and of course linked to it, maybe there’s the continuing influence of Surrealist thinking.
Photography is still usually supposed to bring you closer to reality, to so-called ‘real life’. Some Depression-era images do that here. But a lot of the others seem eerily distant. They hold you at arm’s length.