Typically exhibitions are the embodiment of curatorial visions, ‘The Radical Eye’, however, represented the artistic vision of Sir Elton John, displaying his expansive interest in the photographic medium, so expansive that it could almost serve as a survey on the development of photography itself. The exhibition comprised of five themes, those being ‘portraits’, ‘experiments’, ‘bodies’, ‘documents’, and ‘objects, perspectives, abstractions’. Across these themes were a wide range of technical approaches, including the rayograph, collages and double exposures to name just a few. Featured were also many famous photographers, including but not limited to Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Man Ray and Edward Steichen. Many recognisable figures additionally surfaced throughout the display, prominent surrealist figures such as Salvador Dali and Georgia O’Keeffe, and even a portrait of the musician himself were just a few that could be noted.
‘Documentation’ covered the initial purpose of photography, to serve as an accurate form of record, allowing it to inform us about the world and its many constituents. Notably, Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’ (1936) featured within the display, providing a window into the lives of the poverty stricken in 1930s America and an opportunity to observe one of the most pivotal documentary photographs in the flesh. By including ‘documentation’ as a theme, the importance of photography as a medium that continues to inform in an impactful manner courtesy of its roots in realism is reasserted effectively.
Upon entering the ‘Portraits’ section, visitors were greeted with a portrait of the musician himself captured by Irving Penn, a prestigious figure in photography. Portraiture and photography have typically gone hand in hand, with photography being hailed as a more informative medium, yet interestingly many of the photographers within this display took a creative approach to representing an individual. Edward Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson (1924), a renowned silent film star, effectively expressed an individual’s understanding of her character and career. Embodying deep chiaroscuro tones, the photograph depicts Swanson behind an intricate floral veil, alluding to the sense of mystery and femininity that was so often associated with her. This work and many others within the collection showcased the numerous manners in which photographers could interpret and represent an individual through the photographic medium.
The exhibition additionally featured photographs of the body from a variety of viewpoints. The body was shown in motion such as in Ilse Bing’s ‘Willem van Loon’ (1932), where the dancers supple sense of movement was perfectly captured. The cameras ability to capture intimacy and the body was also shown in this section, with Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of his then lover Georgia O’Keeffe, who he photographed extensively during their relationship. In portraying both the physical and emotional values of the body, photography is proposed as a versatile medium that can accommodate to seemingly contradictory representations.
A different approach was outlined in ‘Experiments’, in which photographers toyed with the medium externally to the process. Such was demonstrated by Man Ray’s portrait of Max Ernst (1934) which was created from a cut out technique, illustrating the complexity of the self. By incorporating the technique of collaging into the display, photography can be contemplated in wider contexts that relate to directly marking the surface, such as painting and drawing.
Contrastingly, in ‘Objects, perspectives, abstractions’, photographers toyed with the notion of the medium internal to the process, debunking the claim that photography is a faithful recording of what it depicts. By taking a photograph at an unusual angle, the representation distorts the attachment that photography possesses with realism, giving the photographer a sense of creative agency. This was demonstrated by works such as Aleksandr Rodchenko’s ‘Shukhov Tower’ (1927), which from below, sets the tower as a mesh of structured patterns that may not be acknowledged from an ordinary perspective. ‘Objects, perspectives, abstractions’ demonstrates that photography does not have to be confined within the domain of faithfully recording subjects, as it can be illusionistic and deceptive also.
Featuring the work of many prominent figures and their different approaches to photography, ‘The Radical Eye’ not only effectively celebrated photography as a distinct medium with both practical and creative possibilities, but enabled the public to witness Sir Elton John’s profound interest in the medium.
The exhibition is running at the Tate Modern from the 10th November 2016 to the 7th May 2017.
Article by Libby Festorazzi