I've really got behind with my studies and recently missed another study visit due to a bad back, so things haven't been going particularly well. I was pleased therefore to get out and see an exhibition, meet some other student and try and get back on track. I'm pleased to say that this has worked!
The title of this exhibition is "The Radical Eye - Modernist photography from the Elton John collection." and it was clear what the major attraction might be for the general public. I try to get along to all the study visits that the OCA arranges, so it wasn't particularly the idea of seeing Elton John's own collection that attracted me; but nevertheless, there were interesting points which were raised afterwards regarding this connection with 'music royalty'. In fact, the first question asked by Russell Squires - one of our tutors on the day along with Jayne Taylor - sparked the longest conversation point. Russell asked a question along the lines of 'how much of a selling point was the fact that Elton John owned these photographs?' The advertising for the exhibition as well as various video clips showed Elton John and David Furnish (John's partner) talking about his collection and the exhibition. To most, if not all of us, it was clear that the exhibition would be well attended by the public simply because of the celebrity connection, regardless of the fact that the images were not about the star himself (barring one or two), or his life, or any actually taken by him; they were simply photographs which he'd collected. Elton John himself - in a video shot in one of his homes where he kept the images on display - admitted that he had come into collecting photography quite late and that prior to that he didn't regard photography as art. John states that he'd never seen anything like it beforeand that by dispaying the images he might encourage others to have the same feelings as he had. Most if not all of the photographs were from the modernist period which is regarded as being the period approximately covering the first half of the 20th century.; photography's 'coming-of-age'. He mentioned that collecting photography had in fact helped him when he was trying to overcome an addiction to drugs and only began in the early 1990s. This back story, whilst interesting, plays no real part in the exhibition itself which was drawn together simply from a collection of photographs by one man, albeit a famous man. We discussed whether Elton John particularly liked the images he'd bought, or whether he'd bought them as an investment, or because they were well know images. An example used was of the 'Migrant Mother', Dorothea Lange's photograph taken in 1936. One of the other students asked why, if he were a collector, did he not purchase the other images Lange took of the lady in the photograph, Florence Thompson? Why did he just buy the 'famous' one? Perhaps it is famous for good reason and that the other images didn't have what the 'Migrant Mother' has. All this aside, the exhibition itself contained some excellent photography and the general view was that it was well curated. The exhibition was divided in five rooms, plus a side room which showed the exhibition film. Each of the rooms contained images related to a certain theme, or themes. The first room introduced the idea of the Radical Eye; explaining a short history of modernism in regard to photography and contained the only images of Sir Elton John himself, those taken by Irving Penn where John is photographed in a traditional portrait head-and-shoulders style but including a movement which has distorted his features. The subsequent rooms were titled, 'Portraits', 'Portraits, Experiments, Bodies', 'Documents,' and 'Objectives, Perspectives, Abstractions'. The overarching theme of modernism is apparent throughout as there is much experimentation on display and the images certainly worked together to fit the individual themes of the rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly there are a few quotes and images from Lazslo Moholy-Nagy who was at the forefront of those experimenting with photography in the early 20th century. Modernism itself was not exclusive to photography but in this exhibition we can clearly see how many photographers weren't content to use the camera exactly as it had been used for the previous 100 years or so and set about creating images which utilised the advancing technology in order to exhibit their creativity. In all of the rooms we see experimentalism whether it be in how sitters are posed for their portraits, the abstract photographs of body parts, unusual viewpoints from bird's-eye to worm's eye and in documentary, where the portability of the camera meant that stories could be told from far and wide. Technology had also meant that faster shutter speeds meant we could now freeze movement, something which couldn't be achieved with earlier equipment.
For me the exhibition was very helpful as it managed to frame the concept of modernism very well and has given me a better grasp of what modernism actually is. I think that overall the exhibition was received well by our group and the fact that the images were from Sir Elton John's own collection didn't reflect in any negative sense on what the curator was trying to achieve.