The singer has collected 7,000 images over the past 25 years. Now Tate will show a selection, Jack Malvern writes
Sir Elton John became fascinated with photography when he was looking for something to distract him during his recovery from drug addiction. “I went from complete darkness to brilliant sunshine,” he said of the moment in 1991 when he bought his first vintage photograph, a year after rehab.
About 7,000 pictures later he is sharing his passion with the public with an exhibition at Tate Modern devoted to modernist prints, including Man Ray’s Glass Tears and André Kertész’s Underwater Swimmer.
Although Sir Elton is known for lavish parties and extravagance — he once spent £293,000 on flowers in less than two years — he is also known for having one of the most important photographic collections in the world.
Shoair Mavlian, curator of the show entitled The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, said that it would be unthinkable for a mainstream gallery to attempt an exhibition about modern photography without consulting him.
The exhibition, which opens in November, will be the first big display of Sir Elton’s collection in Britain since a show at the Baltic in Gateshead in 2007, when police seized a photograph of a naked young girl by Nan Goldin.
The Crown Prosecution Service later concluded that Klara and Edda Belly Dancing (1998) was not an indecent image, but the incident prompted Sir Elton to withdraw the remainder of the photographs from the gallery after nine days.
That image will not feature in the Tate show, which will consist of 150 photographs taken from 1920 to 1950, a period when modernist photographers such as Man Ray and Berenice Abbott were exploring the limits of what cameras could do.
Ms Mavlian said that there had been a “longstanding relationship between Tate and Elton John”, who was a contributor to the Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia show in 2008. “Many photography curators have been to see his work over the years because he has a very large collection including works from 1900 to today,” she said.
The singer, who does not take photographs himself, said that he and David Furnish, his partner, regarded the exhibition as a great honour.
“The modernist era in photography is one of the key moments within the medium and collecting work from this period has brought me great joy over the last 25 years,” he said in a statement. “Each of these photographs serves as inspiration for me in my life; they line the walls of my homes and I consider them precious gems.
“We are thrilled to be part of this collaboration with Tate Modern and hope that the exhibition audience experiences as much joy in seeing the works as I have had in finding them.”
Tate would not discuss the value of the collection, but works by Man Ray have fetched up to £800,000 at auction. Sir Elton, whose fortune has been estimated at £270 million, bought his first print — a black-and-white male nude by Horst P. Horst — at a photography festival in the south of France. Within ten years he had 2,500 images and has collected at a similar rate since.
A sale of 70 of his photographs brought $900,000 in 2004 at Christie’s in New York. He has spoken previously about his wish to make his collection public, although the fate of the collection appears to be undecided.
“I’ve always wanted to leave my photography collection to the nation,” he said in 2010. “David and I probably have the largest private photography collection in the world, or one of them. There isn’t a photography museum in England. There should be and I’d love to leave all the photographs to the nation and the [pop] memorabilia at the same time, so create a museum where you see my life.”
This week the Victoria and Albert Museum announced that it was planning to convert a wing of its premises in South Kensington to show photography, the core of which will be 400,000 prints that are being transferred, controversially, from the National Media Museum in Bradford.
- Sir Elton’s art collection includes Damien Hirst’s The Inescapable Truth, a dove in formaldehyde suspended above a skull, as well as works by Gilbert & George, Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry.
- His property portfolio includes Woodside, a house on the edge of Windsor Great Park, a house in Holland Park in west London and homes in Atlanta and Venice.
- He has co-hosted an annual tennis tournament with Billie Jean King since 1993. The competition raises money to fight HIV/Aids. Team Elton is currently beating Team Billie Jean by 12 matches to 11.