The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from The Sir Elton John Collections (2017)

‘The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from The Sir Elton John Collections’ is an exhibition currently at Tate Modern until 21st of May 2017. It presents for us some of the most iconic photographs from a vibrant period of change, innovation and experiment. For almost 30 years, Sir Elton has built up an extensive collection of over 8000 prints, from the early twentieth century to the present day. In part of the show, he discusses motivations and reasons for exhibiting the work.

This exhibition may be small in size, but it manages to vividly articulate major preoccupations of the individuals who created the pictures, as well as conveying something of the tumultuous times through which they lived.

There are some seventy artists displayed and nearly 150 rare vintage prints, from seminal figures including Man Ray, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, Margaret Bourke-White and Aleksandr Rodchenko. The six main rooms are altogether dedicated to exploring 9 specific themes; some of which may be seen to overlap. However, rather than describe all that in its entirety, the following is an attempt to give you just a flavour of the exhibition.

‘The Radical Eye’ is arranged to show the ‘changing emphasis from the subject to the visual qualities of the image itself’.

There’s never been a rule book for photography, because each successive generation reinvents the ‘terms and conditions’. From very early on, it developed as both document and vehicle for artistic expression. In addition to being a mechanical-chemical means for faithfully recording likeness and events in time as they occurred, the photographic process offered ways, sometimes discovered through accidents made in the darkroom; to subvert the notion it presented a visually “precise” rendering of reality. That in fact it was as open to manipulation at the hand of the artist as any kind of painting or drawing. Also, that by harnessing these so-called ‘mistakes’, it was possible to extend and develop photographic techniques.

Gradually, the medium evolved to allow expressions of heightened emotions, moods and states of mind, as well as for the appearance and cultivation of unexpected abstract elements of form. Whilst at the same time, acting as an ‘impartial eye’ to record the gamut of human experience. Both ways of telling a truth rather than the truth.

Photography also helped alter our perception in a number of ways. Firstly, it was now possible to capture an instant in time; to snatch it from the oblivion of the past. A significant moment in human history with huge repercussions. By extension, we could ‘slow’ time down, in order to reveal the hitherto unseen. For example, when Eadweard Muybridge was able to show the way horses’ gallop using special cameras; something speculated about for centuries but never seen before.

Additionally, Photography helped to redefine what constitutes the ‘still’ picture. Traditional methods of representation ‘combined’ and ‘condensed’ selected fragments, gathered from the ‘real’ world through drawing or painting, over time. Photography captured one moment, in totality. It led to a deeper contemplation about the way we- as humans- see. David Hockney once made the point that when we look at a photograph, even if only for a few seconds; we probably spend significantly more time on it’s subject than the camera did. That fraction of a second shutterspeed, captures just a fleeting fragment of reality. So what (if any) level of meaning might be attributed to it? Long after the invention of the camera shutter, which eventually made possible the capture of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘The Decisive Moment’; photography was still grappling with this problem. When is the ‘right’ time to press the button? Although this is an open ended kind of question, it’s worth bearing in mind when judging the quality or success of a photograph. 

By the end of World War One, a significant number of artists had come to regard photography as the medium for visual expression. One that had come of age. This was in part thanks to the development of faster film and an increasing sophistication in design of cameras and lenses. But also because photography was believed to be untainted by past pictorial traditions and therefore able to faithfully convey the true spirit of the modern age: an era coming to terms with unprecedented change, set amid the aftermath of carnage and revolution. It was seen to be a ‘democratic’ medium too- after all, you didn’t need to be able to paint or draw to operate a camera. Just the right kind of eye.

In the second and third rooms of the show, we are presented with portraits that depict many of the individuals who blazed a creative path through those times. Matisse, Stravinsky and Breton among others. It is interesting to think that in the case of photographer and artist Man Ray, he is probably as well known as many of his subjects. This most Parisian of Americans was a major photographer in his day and a ‘go to’ portraitist; recording in velvety/silky richness, the likeness of many influential cultural figures. He once wrote of his subjects “They collect themselves. Carefully, as if tying a cravat, they compose their features. Insolent, serious and conscious of their looks they turn around to face the world” (1934).

Man Ray was a photographic innovator and also on display are several examples of his experimental, abstract compositions. His “Rayograms’ take worthwhile liberties with the photographic process and seem to have an improvised magic about them, as if he were painting with light. Man Ray also explored the possibilities of solarisation. That is, the reversal of negative-positive values in an image so as to create a mysterious, sensual effect. He used this method to great acclaim depicting Lee Miller, his lover and assistant.

He also photographed his muse, Alice Prin (aka Kiki De Montparnasse) and these pictures take pride of place on display. In one, Man Ray juxtaposes an archetype of classical beauty (Kiki) with that of another culture. The particularly famous image ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924), has Kiki as an ‘object to be played’, recalling one of the great artist’s odalisques. By today’s standards of course, such subject matter may be seen as quite incendiary. But in the context of the time, these photographs are filled with daring, a humour and the Dadaist sensibility that make them so dramatic and memorable.

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy used the camera-darkroom to discover abstract harmonies that lie just beneath the surface of appearance; things we often miss.  His work shows how the photographic process can reveal their presence and allow us all to perceive the world afresh. But these same images also ask a question at the very heart of abstract photography. Namely, can there be such a thing? This is an ongoing debate. On the one hand, Moholy-Nagy’s pictures highlight beautiful geometric form and shape; texture, tone or pattern. Yet they are derived from subjects that exist in the ‘real’ world. I personally believe there is no contradiction and it’s possible to see both form and subject simultaneously, without taking a single ‘point of view’. Anyway, as Plato observed, ‘pure’ forms underlay all that can be seen.

Moholy-Nagy believed photography to be a form of art with its own unique nature: one distinct from other creative disciplines. He saw the medium as “bringing something new into the world” (1932). He was also an artist who worked in other areas. Another who shared similar views and approaches was Alexandr Rodchenko.

Rodchenko’s ‘Shukhov Tower’ from 1927 takes a dramatic perspectival view of a technical wonder of the time, the vast Shukhov radio mast. It shows us how intricate patterns are to be found in machinery and urban structures. Looking at Rodchenko’s work also demonstrates the extent to which the camera suggested new possibilities for composition. He spoke about “Contradictions of perspective. Contrasts of light. Contrasts of form. Points of view impossible to achieve in drawing and painting”. Things that were inherent to the medium. Things of the ‘now’.

He was a painter and designer as well as a photographer; part of the Constructivist movement. Looking at Rodchenko’s entire body of work, there is a clear visual dialogue going on between each element of his practice. The ‘lessons’ learned from the camera feeding back into his art and visa versa. Several other members of this group also used photography to explore industrial subjects; extracting new and vital forms. Often these were used to create new designs or graphics. The accepted boundaries of art were becoming permeable.

Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko’s approach may be seen as part of a wider tendency to break down the long established boundaries between artistic disciplines. This was in part for social and political reasons; divisions between the arts stank of the corrupt hierarchies of the ‘old order’. But it also was an attempt to cultivate an artistic climate in which experiment between disciplines could flourish and lead to new developments. Both artists taught their ideas during this period of reinvention, in the hope of a better future. Rodchenko at Vkhutemas and Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus.

One of Moholy-Nagy’s fellow artists at the Bauhaus was Herbert Bayer. On display we see his 1932 self portrait called ‘Humanly Impossible’, which is an excellent example of what came to be called photomontage. Essentially a hybrid of photography and collage, photomontage allowed for the creation of impossible realities by combining the impartial recording of the camera’s eye with the (almost) infinite illusion of trompe l’oeil painting. This technique offered vast new possibilities for expression. Something the Surrealists and Constructivists- among others- eagerly adopted and developed towards very different outcomes. It also had a satirical potential, as seen in the anti Nazi work of John Heartfield.

llse Bing’s photograph of the ‘Dancer Willem van Loon’ from 1932 celebrates an ideal of the athletic body as seen at the time. Is the figure presented a heroic personification of the human spirit at the pinnacle of achievement? Or can we infer something darker? Totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia sublimated the status of the individual to a cog in the great machinery of ‘The State’. So perhaps the figure could be interpreted as nothing more than a formal shape holding the composition. A contorted ‘component’, devoid of personality. Perhaps the answer is to be found between these two extremes.

There are many good examples of documentary photography on display and it’s worth remembering that a new kind of photojournalist was emerging during this period. People like Margaret Bourke-White, who were profoundly aware that the right kind of photograph, widely disseminated via the mass media; could inform the general public at large. These individuals shared a belief that a powerful image, seen by many, could change public opinion and eventually improve the world.

The most famous photograph on display is probably Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ from 1936. This iconic picture captures the human trauma at the heart of the Great Depression (and subsequent Dustbowl) – a period as significant in shaping the American way of life in the early twentieth century as the Old West had been during the late nineteenth.

Edward Weston’s many subjects included landscapes, nudes and still lives. One particularly memorable image on display is “Nude” from 1936, in which the model is arranged in the form of a triangle so as to fill the picture space, countered by an ellipse created by the figure’s extended arms. Weston also photographed subjects drawn from things we see everyday. For example ‘Church Door, Hornitos, 1940’. These images are exquisitely observed and produced; with an emphasis on pattern, a rich dramatic tone, subtle texture and strong composition. “The camera should be used for a recording of life” (Edward Weston, 1924).

The final room in the show brings together many of the recurrent themes and subjects. Objects are transformed by being photographed from unusual angles, abstracted beyond their usual appearance. Small intimate images of moments captured in time.

In conclusion, there are many other excellent (and iconic) examples on display in this show. But ‘The Radical Eye’ does more. Although we’ve touched on this point before, Matisse- an artist who always saw things clearly- believed that photography could free us of what he called the ‘encumbrance’ of previous artists’ points of view. Instead of seeing the world through received traditions and conventions, the medium could open our eyes to all that is around us, in order to see things clearly, without bias. That’s something these pictures have the capacity to do and make a visit to this exhibition definitely worthwhile.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017.