Review: The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography

November 11, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
Tate Modern

In a moment of irony at this exhibition of Elton John’s personal photography collection, a security guard berated a woman for taking a picture on her iPhone.

It was a neat reminder of how saturated and disposable this medium has become in the 21st century, clogging up social media feeds, propped up by technology that makes terrible photographs look average and average ones look, at a glance, good. In a world of pretty, forgettable images, you could forget that photography was once at the vanguard of contemporary art.

The invention of celluloid film in the late 19th century allowed artists to capture the world around them in ways that were genuinely revolutionary. For the first time movement could be frozen and manipulated to create something altogether new, and the modernists loved it.

At the forefront was Man Ray, the hero and focal point of this fascinating collection. His Glass Tears (pictured), takes pride of place but is no more impressive than his more experimental pieces that incorporate processes such as solarisation, double exposures and overlays (some of which he was first to use).

There’s also an emphasis on early celebrity portraiture – appropriately given their owner – with a series by Ray using focus and light to reflect the personality of his sitters. Another brilliant series by Irving Penn squashes his famous subjects into an awkward corner; Dali spreads to fill the space, his personality exploding from the frame, while heavyweight champion Joe Lewis is boxed awkwardly in, tense and uncomfortable.

The exhibition meanders through rooms dedicated to documentary, portraiture and the avant garde: it’s a comprehensive art history lesson, as broad in its scope and quality as any museum-owned collection.

It ends with a room filled with still lifes. These are alive with the sense of wonder that photography once brought to the everyday, a time when pictures of a cabbage, or a pot, or a gourd that looks a bit like a willy were new and exciting, instead of barely noticed drops in the torrent of selfies and pictures of your auntie Brenda’s flat-white.

First published in City A.M.