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Elton John's Modernist photography collection goes on display at Tate Modern

Published 08/11/2016

Sir Elton John unveils some of the treasures from his 8,000-strong photography collection at a new exhibition at Tate Modern
Sir Elton John unveils some of the treasures from his 8,000-strong photography collection at a new exhibition at Tate Modern

Sir Elton John has unveiled some of the treasures from his 8,000-strong photography collection at a new exhibition at Tate Modern - and told how getting sober helped spark his interest in the art form.

The star, 69, has lent his entire collection of Modernist photography to the gallery - 191 photographs ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The black and white photographs have been taken off the walls of his 18,000 square foot apartment in Atlanta for the show, which opens on Thursday.

The images - from a period when photography was going through rapid experimentation - are just a small slice of the 8,000 images he owns, which stretch from 1910 to the present day.

Sir Elton told the Press Association how his passion for photography was sparked by sobriety, after leaving rehab.

"What drew me to photography was I got sober in 1990," he said.

"I'd had my pictures and photograph taken by a lot of great photographers and never knew anything about it as an art form whatsoever. "

He snapped up his first images, black and white fashion photographs, while staying in France with a friend.

"I thought these are amazing," the star said of the images. "I bought maybe 12."

Since then, Sir Elton said, photography has taken "over my life in a way".

"It's been the art form I've loved the most ever and I've loved all sorts of art forms.

"This is the one I'm most passionate and know most about."

But Sir Elton admitted that, despite his trained eye, he was not immune to making the odd error.

There are 25 images by Man Ray, a leading figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements, in the show, and Anatomies (1930), depicting a neck, is one of the singer's favourites.

"The Man Ray neck is rumoured to be (artist) Duchamp's neck. I thought it was a penis actually," Sir Elton said.

"But it's not, it is a neck. I love that image so much."

Sir Elton listed two other highlights, Underwater Swimmer by Andre Kertesz (1917) and Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936).

He said of Underwater Swimmer: "That image has really been influential throughout the whole of the 20th century and beyond in photography, art, theatre, film. You can't believe it was taken nearly 100 years ago."

Of the haunting image, Migrant Mother, taken during the Depression in the US, he added: "I love the fact that the photograph is so beautiful and yet the situation is so awful.

"I always call it the Mona Lisa of photographs.

"Her face is so elegant and dignified and yet she's going through the most horrific of times, trying to feed and clothe her children."

A short video in the exhibition shows Sir Elton and his photographs in his luxurious Atlanta home.

One of the images on display is a distorted image of the Rocket Man singer himself, and the star joked that he looked like "an insane Alan Bennett" in the series of photographs which it comes from, on the wall of his home.

Another, Man Ray's Noire et Blanche, hangs in his bedroom when not in the show.

"It hangs above my bed in Atlanta. So if I die and it falls off the wall at least I will have been killed by a Man Ray," the star joked.

Sir Elton said that when he first started buying, at an "avaricious rate", images were not as expensive as they are now.

He set a world record for a photograph at auction when he paid £125,000 for Man Ray's Glass Tears (1932).

But he said he did not collect to make money, but that collecting has been like "going to university and studying a subject I completely and utterly adored.

"They've inspired me subconsciously. I don't write songs about them," he told the Press Association.

"I'm very fortunate to be able to live with this ... I live with my art. I don't put it away. It's on the walls.

"I can't believe all this is out of my apartment in Atlanta and there are still loads of photographs on the walls there."

He added: "I'm very, very lucky. It does inspire me. It must inspire. It fills you with joy.

"There's enough horror and sadness in this world, particularly at the moment.

"There's enough negativity. To have this, to be able to enjoy this every day when I get up, is a huge bonus."

:: The Radical Eye, Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, opens on Thursday and runs until May 7, 2017 at Tate Modern.

Tate said that the star and husband David Furnish would be donating some of their artwork to the nation.

The gallery said of the exhibition: "It also marks the beginning of a long term relationship between Tate and The Sir Elton John Collection, as part of which Sir Elton and David Furnish have agreed to give important works to the nation."

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