With his penchant for sequinned jackets and 18th century-themed fancy dress, it might come as a surprise to find that Elton John's artistic taste tends towards the subtle, and that he favours the monochrome over the polychromatic. Most curiously of all, however, is the fact that John has amassed a collection not of large-scale canvases and glitzy investment opportunities, but rather of the exquisite, experimental world of early 20th century photography. His haul, which he plans to ultimately donate to the nation, is 8,000 prints-deep.
The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is the first exhibition mounted by the Tate to be solely dedicated to the photography of this miraculous period. Set in the second-floor gallery of the Tate Modern's recently opened Switch House, it comprises a series of thematically-arranged spaces. The 150 or so selected works, largely gelatine silver prints, are displayed in the same metallic frames as they are in John's Atlanta residence, and sometimes in the same arrangement.
The breadth and depth of John's collection is remarkable, and serves as a thorough survey of photography between the 1920s and 1940s - "A moment when," says lead curator Shoair Mavlian, "photography began to separate itself from painting and make its own route." Remarkable too is the quality; John's obsession with acquiring the finest prints has led to him pieces far beyond the reach of public institutions. "To find such perfect things from this time," says co-curator Simon Baker, "is incredibly rare." Even if you've seen some of the these images before, the clarity of these prints is remarkable.
Even in the first room, which serves as a sort of introduction to the remainder, this sense of quality pervades. An arrangement of nine small works in a grid, replicated from John's office, includes three superb miniatures from Paul Outerbridge. André Kertész's diminutive 'Underwater Swimmer' (1917), the earliest work on show, captures sensuality and motion unthinkable in earlier photography. Best of all is a pairing from Man Ray's series 'Noire et Blanche' (1926), which depicts music hall habitue, Kiki de Montparnasse and an African mask in positive and negative prints.
Man Ray quickly emerges as the hero of the show, with work dotted throughout each section of the exhibition. His portrait of Picasso (1922) shows the Spanish artist in an uncharacteristically conservative mode, while Ray's André Breton (1930) sees the archetypal pose and preen like a matinee idol. 'Anatomies' (1930) contorts its subjects neck into a strangely phallic abstraction, while 'Ostrich Egg' (1944) turns its concrete subject into something strangely mystical and unknowable.
There are many stories here, overlapping and interweaving. The "Experiments" section charts the rise of photomontage and multiple exposures, while "Bodies" charts the medium's ability to capture the human form. The surfeit of works allows numerous comparisons to be drawn, between for instance the classically posed cleanness of Dora Maar's nude 'The Dancer Alberto Spandolini' (1935) and the stickier, sweaty eroticism of Frantisek Dritkol's male nudes from a decade earlier.
The wonders on offer are so abundant that it is difficult to mark out individual highlights. When a show contains masterpieces from, among others and those mentioned above, Brassaï, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Henry Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn, one shouldn't pick and choose. But a single image in the final room – focused on "Objects, Perspectives and Abstractions" – serves well as a microcosm of the whole.
Imogen Cunningham's 'Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels' (1925) depicts a close-up image of the titular flower as if a piece of intricate jewellery. It perfectly distills the modernist's propensity to turn photography's world-facing strictures into something as mysterious and ambiguous as life itself. In enlightening this process for the present day, The Radical Eye is a triumph.