Sunday, November 20, 2016
Elton on His Photography Collection
I am standing with Sir Elton John in the lounge of his west London house looking at a wall hung with six black-and-white Cindy Sherman photographs from her series Untitled Film Stills. He is telling me how he came to own them. “I was sitting next to her at a dinner in New York for the New Museum and I said, ‘God, I love your stuff, Cindy, but it never comes up for sale.’ And she said, ‘I want a new house. I’ll sell you some artist’s prints’, and here they are, all six of them.”
Later, Nan Goldin’s name comes up in conversation and he says that he owns a whole series of her work. “I remember going to Jay Jopling’s White Cube when it was in Duke St, in London, and I was walking around this whole room of Nan’s works and I said to Jay, ‘How can you buy just one of these?’ He said, ‘Well, buy the whole lot, then.’ I went, ‘How much?’, and he told me, and I said, ‘You’re on!’”
Not for the first time this afternoon, I find myself thinking what it must be like to be so famous and so connected and to have so much money that you can buy an entire exhibition of artworks if the fancy takes you. And yet Elton John, for all his wealth, celebrity and the access it grants him to the art world, is not, in his words, “an art trophy collector”. He buys what he loves and, since 1991, what he has loved most of all is photography.
“I’d just gotten sober back then,” he says, referring to the long rehab that ended the years of chemical and alcohol-fuelled excess, “and it was like I was seeing with clear eyes. I was in a chateau in the south of France and David Fahey, who owns a gallery in LA, showed me some prints by Herb Ritts and Horst and Irving Penn and that was it. Suddenly, I discovered something that I had been surrounded by for years and never noticed as an art form despite having had my portrait taken by the likes of Penn and [Richard] Avedon. I just flew into it and began to amass prints at auction and in private sales. It became the greatest passion I have outside of music.”
The extent of Elton John’s love for, and knowledge of, photography can be gauged by the 200 or so modernist works from his collection currently on display at Tate Modern in an exhibition called The Radical Eye. It traces the fertile experimentation of the period between 1920 and 1950 and includes iconic images by masters of the medium such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, André Kertész and Edward Steichen. More revealing still, it includes many of their lesser known works as well as work by less famous names such as Harry Callahan, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Emmanuel Sougez and Paul Outerbridge. Curated by the Tate’s Shoair Mavlian with help from Newell Harbin, director of John’s entire collection of more than 7,000 images, the show is divided into seven themes that range from portraiture to abstraction. In short, it is, quite apart from its link with the star, an exhibition that stands up as a deep and extensive exploration of what is arguably the most important period in the history of photography.
“For me it’s the creative high point,” says John, “when artists like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy were constantly pushing the boundaries of the form. In fact, I recently chose a Kertész photograph, Underwater Swimmer, as the most important photograph of the 20th century because it has influenced so much art, from Hockney to Max Dupain to [Robert] Mapplethorpe. Like many vintage prints I own, it is tiny, 32x45mm, and exquisite.”
Such restraint, I say, will surprise people.
“I know, I know, I’m not known for my restraint, but for me this collection is about love, not collecting for the sake of it or grandstanding. I often go around private galleries and collections and I see all the big obvious photographs by the masters, which are great, but I’m thinking, where is your personal selection? Where is the art that cost $150? Everything you see in the Tate was chosen by me. My curator will suggest stuff but nobody goes and collects on my behalf. I live with these works around me and they bring me great joy because every day I wake up and notice something new.”
Has he ever actually paid $150 for a photograph? “Yes! That’s the great thing about photography – you can walk into a gallery and see something that’s really beautiful and inspiring and it will cost you, well, 500 quid. I do that when I travel. I seek out new work. I don’t collect things for the value, I collect for the beauty. I’m in awe of these things.” He must have picked up some real bargains back in the early 1990s , though, before the current boom. “Oh God, yes. An Irving Penn colour vintage print will cost you $650,000 on today’s market. I just had a Penn I own valued at that amount. No one was more surprised than me. I went, ‘David! Have you seen this appraisal?’ He went, ‘Wow!’ and I said, ‘It’s the one that’s hanging in the bathroom.’”
Today, there is no sign of his husband, David Furnish, who luckily also has a passion for photography – “I just bought him an amazing piece by Christopher Williams, whose work I’ve only just discovered.”
Elton John is one of those people who’s so famous that, when he enters the room, you find yourself thinking, is it really him? Dressed down today in a black Adidas tracksuit and pristine white trainers, and wearing tinted spectacles on his tanned face, he seems remarkably relaxed and eager to get down to business. This property, which he refers to as his second London home – the other, much grander one, is in Windsor – is a pied-a-terre in a mews in an exclusive west London neighbourhood. From the outside, it looks remarkably modest. Inside, too, by rock star standards, save for the art on display. Having shooed away two small, immaculately groomed pooches that appear alongside him, he leads me along the hallway into the dining room. The walls of both are lined with art and photography: we pass one filled with Irving Penn portraits, another dotted with black-and-white David Bailey prints of 60s icons, a vast Sam Taylor Wood recreation of the Last Supper, and at least two large triangular Hirsts – one filled with butterflies, the other with thousands of dead flies. Later, he will draw my attention to a crucifix made from scrubbing brushes that hangs on another wall. “It cost me a few quid in a market and I love it so much.”
Every surface holds crystal sculptures, evidence of his other obsession – rare glass. “I’m a huge collector of glass – I love it and feel it’s the last great underrated area of creativity,” he says, pointing to an insect created by the glass artist William Morris. “He was trained by Dale Chihuly at the Pilchuck Glass School. I went to visit him, which was interesting because he lives in the backwoods for days at a time and hunts with a bow and arrow. Amazing character and the most handsome man… I watched him work and it was stunning, just stunning.”
John is easygoing company and, disconcertingly, sounds like a regular bloke from Pinner even when talking about his wealth and the privileges it affords him. He is unselfconscious about his vast fortune and endearingly enthusiastic about his passions. “I’m self-taught. I read photography books and I keep up with all the prizes. I’m constantly on the look-out for new young artists to encourage, just as I am with music. [Three of the young artists from Atlanta turn up at his Tate private view the following evening.] I was very snobbish about colour photography at the start until I learned about Paul Outerbridge and how he did advertising to pay the rent. Then I got into William Eggleston and William Christenberry, both southern photographers, and I became a big collector of contemporary colour work.”
Unlike many collectors, most of the vintage prints he owns are not secreted in a vault but displayed on the walls of his vast apartment in Buckwood, Atlanta, where he lives when he is not in Los Angeles or London or one of his holiday homes in Venice or the south of France. When I ask him how it feels to be back in post-referendum Britain, he grimaces. “You know, I don’t like it here at the moment, to be honest. I don’t like the hatred here. It’s like David said recently, it’s like a boil has been lanced that was there for a long time and suddenly all this hatred has come to the surface. People have been OK about gay marriage and things like that and suddenly they’re not. I have never, ever thought this of this country until now. I was always proud to come from here and to live here, because there are different opposing views about everything but it’s a pretty civilised place. At the moment, though, it’s not, and I don’t like it. It’s horrible.”
Unprompted, he mentions an editorial in last week’s edition of this paper. “The greatest editorial I have read for a long time was in the Observer,” he says, brightening. “It was a fantastic piece about Brexit and the meanness in this country that has surfaced.”
We meet just two days before the American election and the surprise triumph of Donald Trump. When I mention Trump’s name, he shakes his head. “This election is like waiting to see if you’ve got cancer or not,” he says, letting out a dry laugh. “You’ve gone for the scan and you’re going to get the result in a few days. Trump is the only person I have ever known who can tell out-and-out lies and people just don’t seem to care. ‘I survived an assassination attempt.’ No you fucking didn’t. He tweeted it and his son tweeted it and it’s just lies. It’s like the world’s gone mad.”
He has been vocal in his condemnation of homophobia in Russia, condemning it from the stage in concerts in St Petersburg and Moscow in 2014, and writing a message to Vladimir Putin on his website in which he described people he had met in Russian who were “decent, kind, patriotic men and women who had no thought of forcing their sexuality on anyone”. Does he feel pessimistic at the moment given the global rise of nationalism and populism and the attendant anti-gay rhetoric?
“I have to say I do. When you see what is happening in Russia and the African situation, it’s pretty depressing. I remember going to Moscow when the gay scene was rampant and you’d go to this club in Moscow where nude boys would be swimming though a tank and stuff like that. Then the mayor of St Petersburg started taking books out of libraries and clamping down. It’s just extraordinary. We live in very strange times, but there are voices of reason and they need to be heard.”
One surprise in The Radical Eye show is the framing of the images, which is, well, a bit bling – gold and silver gilt rather than, as he puts it, “boring bloody black”. That will, I say, almost certainly annoy the purists. “Oh, they can fuck off,” he says. “All I am saying is, look at them in a different way – as magnificent works of art that should be magnificently framed.” I put it to him that Britain has been slow to accept photography as art. “I know. I know. For me, this country has always turned its nose up at photography and treated photography as the poor relation of art. That’s why I’m doing this show – I want people in England to see this incredible work and to look at it and discover photography as art. The very fact that I am having to say this is a bit ridiculous, but we’re stuck somehow. I just want people to react in awe and wonder, like I did when I first saw these works. I really hope they do.”
Was it his idea to call it The Radical Eye? He nods. “They initially said, we can’t call it that, the word radical has terrorist associations. I mean, for fuck’s sake!”
I ask him whether his sexuality has influenced his collecting? “Yes, of course! I also collect homoerotic prints, starting with Minor White and George Platt Lynes, both of whom feature in the show. Their work was incredibly risky at the time and they both got into a lot of trouble. Minor White got chastised for his beautiful male nude studies and so he started photographing plants and flowers and was never the same photographer again. These guys were pioneers in many ways. You can draw a line from them to Mapplethorpe.”
I know he collects Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers series, but does he own any of the more extreme images, the ones that caused some of his work to be removed from galleries in America in the Reaganite 1980s?
“I actually bought Jay Jopling [the art dealer and gallerist] the one of the fist up the arse,” he says, laughing. “I would love to get that back now. I do like edgy photographs. Larry Clark I love. I collected Andreas Serrano very early on. I have 10 works by Joel-Peter Witkin and I want more. I was actually going to buy Richard Gere’s collection, which is the biggest, but it didn’t happen for some reason. I think Witkin is fantastic. His work is a bit like Hieronymus Bosch – you’re looking at them and thinking, how did you do this?”
I remind him of the controversy that erupted the last time he showed work from his photography collection, at the Baltic in Gateshead in 2007. A picture by Nan Goldin, entitled Klara and Edda Belly Dancing, Berlin (1998), was seized by the police the day before the exhibition opened after a complaint that it breached pornography legislation. It was later found not to be indecent by the Crown Prosecution Service. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” he explodes, when I bring it up. “I was so upset. Nan was so upset. I said, ‘Take the show down. This is so insulting.’ And you know who did it? Someone who worked for the gallery tipped the police off. He wanted to sabotage the show.”
He shakes his head as if still baffled. “You know, with Nan’s work, I felt a deep personal connection. I remember walking around that White Cube show [work from her 2003 series, The Devil’s Playground] and thinking, ‘This is my life on the wall, this is my recovery, these are the people I lost from Aids.’ That’s why I bought it all. There was such an emotional connection. It was like the Munch Scream but with a happy ending.” Does he have any of them on the walls at home? “No. It is tough to live with that sort of work, but I am glad I own it. I have a colour pic of her and Mapplethorpe in my kitchen in Atlanta, though. Every day as I’m having breakfast, I’m looking at Robert and Nan.”
That apartment must feel oddly empty at the moment. “Well, yes and no,” he says, laughing. “I mean, the Tate show is only the tip of a very large iceberg. I worked out that I could probably do 20 different shows of this scale on different themes – portraits, early colour, shadows. The apartment has actually grown to accommodate my collection. Initially, I had 2,500sq ft and then I bought the apartment next door to house the growing photography collection. Now I have 18,000sq ft of space – it’s covered mainly in photography but also houses 4,000 pieces of glass, 2,500 of which are big.”
He also collects themed photography series including portraits of Chet Baker, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí. He owns the biggest collection of 9/11 photographs in the world, some 2,000 in all, ranging from images made by amateur snappers on the ground to work by Magnum photojournalists. “I have The Falling Man [by Richard Drew],” he says, quietly. “It is one of the most beautiful and powerful and upsetting images ever. One side of the building in darkness, one side in light and this man falling in that perfect straight line, head first, out of the tower. It is the most beautiful photograph of the most painful, horrible thing. This is the power of photography, the dichotomy between tragedy and beauty. It makes you think about the thin line between death and life.”
Add to all this John’s ongoing collection of contemporary photojournalism, the large body of Australian photography he has accrued and a rapidly expanding contemporary collection that includes work by Alec Soth and Todd Hido as well as rising stars like Alex Prager and Eamonn Doyle. Is there, I venture, an obsessive element to all this? He cracks up laughing. “Is there ever! I am so compulsive-obsessive. I recognise that. But it gives me so much genuine pleasure.”
I tell him I was pleasantly surprised to discover a whole room full of classic social documentary photography in the show alongside the portraits and the formal experimentation – work by the likes of Walker Evans, Tina Modotti, Ilse Bing and Dorothea Lange. “It’s a genre I love because it’s that dichotomy between the beauty of the image and the suffering of the subject. I’m going to ruffle a lot of feathers, but I think that, with the exception of Lucian Freud, I think a portrait with a camera is always better than a portrait with a paintbrush. Look at Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange – it’s just breathtaking. To me it’s like the Mona Lisa, but with great suffering.”
Given that his late-flowering love of photography began in the wake of his late-flowering sobriety, has he, I ask, simply replaced one addiction – drugs and alcohol – with another – art and photography? He nods cheerfully. “It’s even more complex than that because I’m impulsive as well as compulsive. Before I’d gone into rehab, for instance, I was doing up my other house in Windsor and I suddenly realised that I was living in a cliched rock star’s house with gold discs on the wall and all that sort of stuff. It was weird because suddenly everything I had collected, except master paintings, I didn’t like any more. I didn’t like art nouveau, I didn’t like art deco. So, out it all went, sold at Sotheby’s. I sold all my classic cars. I sold all my paintings except for a Francis Bacon, a Patrick Proctor and two Magrittes.”
It turns out that his love of collecting precedes his wealth and fame. “I’ve always loved objects,” he told Jane Jackson – who sold her gallery in Atlanta and became the first director of his collection in 2003 – in an interview for The Radical Eye catalogue, “As a child, my parents argued a lot, so I found comfort in objects, and my collections were always pristine – my records, my toys, they were all beautifully kept.”
Was there art of any kind in his childhood home in Pinner back then? “Are you kidding me? We had those plaster plates with parrots painted on them. That was it, art-wise, in our house.”
His sons, Zachary and Elijah, are the opposite, I say, growing up in houses full of some of the world’s greatest art. He nods, smiling. “The boys both love art. We took Zachary to the Matisse chapel this year because he learned about Matisse in school. I tell you, he had the best time. Seriously. He loved it. When he was young, about eight or nine months, we took him around a Picasso exhibition in New York and when we came to any of the really wild ones, he went nuts. (He mimics a child roaring loudly and waving his arms about.) We were like, are you kidding me? It was instinctive.”
He falls silent for a moment and returns to his own youth. “When I became Elton John, I was still just a kid. I remember I was living with Bernie (Taupin, his longtime lyricist) and we had no money, but we’d have Athena reproductions of Man Ray on the wall. I even had a poster of Glass Tears – I never ever imagined I would one day end up owning it.” Years later, in 1993, he bought a vintage print of Glass Tears for £112,500, setting a new auction price record for a single photograph. “I thought I’d lost my mind for a moment,” he chuckles, “but then I thought, no, I’m getting serious. I’m in it for the long haul now.”
Back then, photography was what the experts call a quiet area of the art market. Just six years later, though, another vintage print of the same photograph, of which there are only six in existence, became the first photograph to sell for over $1m. The rest is history, with the likes of Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman now fetching between $3-4m for a single print.
Sir Elton is as meticulous as he is obsessive. During a pre-opening walk around the Tate Modern show, the curator, Shoair Mavlian, tells me that Sir Elton’s vintage Man Ray prints are recognised as perhaps the most pristine in existence.
Are there are any masterpieces of photography that he covets, I ask.
“Not as many as you’d think. I’d love the Edward Weston of the woman lying naked in the dunes. I’ve had the chance to buy it, but I want the best print. Same with the young boy holding the hand grenade by [Diane] Arbus. It sold for $450,000 recently, but it was a print that wasn’t made by her and it had coffee stains all over it.” He looks appalled. “I would never have anything like that in my collection. The slightest blemish is enough for me not to buy. Part of the beauty and the excitement for me, is to have the original print as it was when it was created and just to think of being there when it was made by a master like Man Ray or Weston. Can you imagine the thrill of that moment?” He thinks about this, enraptured. “It would be like being present in the sound booth when Aretha [Franklin] was recording Think. Oh my God! Just amazing.”
Does he see any parallel between the golden age of analogue photography and the halcyon days of rock’n’roll? He nods. “I think so. The craft has been lost for a start. I was listening to some stuff in the Mercedes the other day, some Kings of Leon or something, and I thought, rock’n’roll is dead. It’s all the same and it’s not inspiring. And I’m someone who keeps up. I hear great Americana and great country, and lots of inventive electronic music, but no great new bands. It all comes out of a computer now and I hate the deadness of it. You disappear up your own arse with digital technology. That’s why I always record on analogue. I don’t care about the charts, I just do it now. I can’t get on the radio any more and you know what, neither should I. I’ve had my time, I want to make records that I like in the way that I like, so it’s analogue for me.”
In this age of Instagram, does he take photographs himself? “Nah, I can’t take a photograph to save my life. The singer John Grant is a great photographer, though he hasn’t published any yet. And Michael Stipe is fantastic. I’m not.”
Are there any great photographers whose work he doesn’t like? “I’m going to ruffle some more feathers, but I’m not keen on Ansel Adams. I find those big romantic American landscapes a bit too postcardy. They’re gorgeous and they’re great art, but, personally, they aren’t edgy enough for me.”
Has he thought about what will become of his collection in the fullness of time? “No. Never think about it. I’m too busy thinking of where to put the stuff I buy and what will happen if I ever decide to move. I tell you one thing – Pickfords will have a fucking field day!”
John started collecting early, a decade before Tate Modern first showed serious interest in photography. Astonishingly, he's amassed over 8,000 photographs in the last 25 years, at one point purchasing at least four or five photographs a week.
"I became avaricious about it, like a kid in a candy store," he says on the audio guide.
I ask the director of The Sir Elton John Photography Collection, Newell Harbin, whether the singer is perhaps addicted, and she hesitates momentarily.
"He's a passionate collector," she finally says and laughs, before noting that he is slowing down.
The rate of acquisition is now "about one and half photographs a week," and their wish list has shrunk -- only about a dozen or so key early 20th century photos still to add -- although the quest for flawless vintage prints remains.
John describes photography as " the love of my life, in art terms. I love surrounding myself with them." That's why, he says, he works so hard: so he can collect.
Among his collection are 2000 photos from 9/11, "the most horrible subject matter, but the most moving photography. We get them out every year. Beautiful photographs, but they're too raw to show."
At the end of the audio guide, John takes a moment to reflect.
"We live in turbulent times, probably the most turbulent of my life," he says. "With photos, you get a sense of what's happening and outrage."
at 9:16 AM