The Radical Eye - Millie Battershill
Man Ray’s Glass Tears (Les Larmes) is the first thing you see upon entering The Radical Eye exhibition at Tate Modern; an iconic image chosen to represent an even more iconic collection. November 2016 to May 2017 are the months that see a selection from the Sir Elton John Collection on display at the gallery. He began gathering photographs in 1991 and now has over 8000 prints, which are usually displayed in the home he shares with David Furnish.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the first photograph taken with a camera in 1826. Fast-forward almost two hundred years and it’s 2017, technology has come a very long way. However in terms of the photographic industry, the images we see today contain ideas that have been around since the early twentieth century. Photography’s ‘coming of age’, as it is referred to, represents a certain period during its progression when a huge amount of experimentation occurred. This is the era The Radical Eye harkens back to, the time of modernist photography.
I will admit, whilst I recognised a huge amount of the images I do not feel as though I appreciated their significance prior to seeing the exhibition. This is mainly because in order to understand an image or piece of artwork, I think having some knowledge of its context is important, and I didn’t have that. I also was initially concerned that it was more about having a collection rather than caring for it, however I quickly recognised the passion Elton John has for these photographs. “I want people to think ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before, never knew this kind of thing existed’ – just as I did when I first saw these photographs”, quoted in the leaflet, Elton John explains his need for people to experience the images. It is clear then; he holds a love for the art form as strong as any adoring photographer.
The exhibition is separated into different sections, these are: Portraits, Bodies, Experiments, Documents and Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions. Firstly, Portraits; there are numerous portraits, mostly of artists, entertainers and writers. Here is where you would find a portrait of Man Ray himself, along with others such as Salvador Dalí, Henry Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The thought that struck me the most strongly when viewing the portraits, of artists in particular, was how lovely it is to be able to put a face to a name and therefore an ownership to some of the most famous pieces of artwork ever created.
When photography was invented one of its defining qualities was its ability to be truthful or rather, the idea that it could not lie. This is, of course, not quite correct therefore eventually there came a realisation that photographs could be manipulated. The experimental section, as well as Perspectives and Abstractions, were the ones, which really cemented the idea in my brain that it’s extremely difficult to create something original. The modernists were ahead of their time, working with analogue photographs that were overlaid, cropped, reversed and altered in many other ways. The work they created demonstrates how the manipulation and editing of digital imagery we see today is honestly nothing new.
The most poignant memory I have, however, from the whole exhibition is the moment I caught sight of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. It is an image I’ve seen before, however this was the first time I was truly aware of the difference between viewing a copy as opposed to an original print. As I gazed into the face of the mother, I understood Dorothea Lange’s purpose as a photographer; she was documenting. Lange, as well as other photographers such as Walker Evans, was supplying characters and a backdrop to important social and political events, much like the documentary photographers of today. Migrant Mother, The Damage is Already Done and One of the Homeless Wandering Boys are just a few of the images that allow us as an audience to see the struggle that was being faced during America’s Great Depression. The beautifully touching photographs were just the beginning of what would become an incredibly imperative stepping-stone in the progression of photography.
In addition to the many famous photographs there was also a wonderfully shot film of Elton John in his home explaining his love for them. This is something I had not anticipated however was very grateful for as it allows an audience to understand and share his passion even more.
I did not expect to have so many thoughts coming away from the exhibition, nevertheless I feel as though I’ve learnt something new; my own adoration for photography has been re-established. If there is one thing that can strike motivation in an artist I think seeing an exhibition is it. In The Radical Eye Tate Modern displays some of the most iconic photographs ever produced and I invite you to suggest something better or more inspiring. I know I can’t.
Words and images by Millie Battershill