Elton John Has “The Radical Eye”

Photo: Man Ray, Glass Tears, 1932 (detail); from The Radical Eye (Aperture/2016). Courtesy The Sir Elton John Photography Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

It has been suggested that the best way to break a habit is to replace it with a new one—and Sir Elton John’s experience proves this true. After completing rehab in 1990, the legendary musician traveled to France to stay with friends who had been organizing a photography festival with exhibitions everywhere. Suddenly, the man who stood before countless cameras for dozens of years found himself gazing upon the object with awe.

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“I had never really noticed photography as an art form before,” he tells curator Jane Jackson in a conversation that opens The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection (Aperture). First released in hardcover last fall, the book being released as a paperback this month. In it, the artist recounts the moment of epiphany in the South of France, as he poured over prints by Herb Ritts, Horst P. Horst, and Irving Penn, which Los Angeles gallerist David Fahey brought.

André Kertész, Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, Hungary, 30 June, 1917; from The Radical Eye (Aperture/2016). Courtesy The Sir Elton John Photography Collection © Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures

“I looked at them and thought, oh my God, these are so beautiful — I bought about twelve on the spot. I suddenly became intensely interested in photography,” Elton remembers. “The timing for me couldn’t have been better. Photographs were very undervalued then. If I had started collecting twenty years later, most of the vintage works would no longer have been available and the prices would have been drastically different. I wouldn’t have been able to amass the collection I’ve got now.”

And what a collection it is — one that is absolutely breathtaking in its scope, its authenticity, and its profound love for the masters of the medium. The collection follows the technological developments that occurred during the 1920s, which allowed artists the freedom to experiment and create new ways of looking, seeing, and capturing light on paper to create artifacts, metaphors, and documents of the ways we live.

Among the luminaries included in the book are artists such as Crave faves Brassaï, Weegee, Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Irving Penn, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Carl Van Vechten, Diane Arbus, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, as well as Edward Weston, André Kertész, Ansel Adams, Tina Modotti, Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, and Alexander Rodchenko, among many others.

Paging through The Radical Eye, you tumble across icons and old friends, impressed with Elton’s intuitive sensibility for the medium during its first genuine golden age. The artist acknowledges that photography replaced alcohol, and it did so with aplomb, becoming a meditation, an inspiration, and a balm.

He tells Jackson, “It’s a much healthier addiction to buy photographs, so I just switched. I felt as if my eyes were opened by photography. It was the most beautiful thing because I was getting sober, and feeling great about myself, and entering a new phase of my life. Photography became this incredible companion. It went hand in hand with my sobriety, which was also fresh and a release. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Inside the candy store, Elton was free to experiment, just like the artists he collected. He delved into different genres, from surrealist to documentary, portraiture to nudes, cityscapes to still lifes. What is clear and consistent throughout the connection is the purity of form, the exquisite tonality, and the ability for artists to push the edge—though looking back, it’s very telling that their revolutionary aesthetics were quickly embraced, quickly becoming the trope du jour, and easily getting played out in lesser hands. Such is the majesty of mastery: the original is as powerful as it ever was, perfectly articulating a new way of seeing, thinking, and feeling with the simple click of a shutter.

For Sir Elton John, one thing is clear: the passion for collecting is something that comes from his soul. Where some view art as an investment, others simply collect because they absolutely must own it for themselves, to improve the quality of their lives and to nourish their spirits.

“I never collected anything to make a profit. Never in my life have I done that. I’ve just bought things that I like,” Elton reveals, then later adds: “I hate trophy art. I buy what I like and if it’s not fashionable I don’t care. The more you collect, the more sophisticated your eye becomes.”

Indeed, elegant refinement and heightened sensitivity to complexity and nuance, is in abundance and deeply felt with every photograph the artist shares with us.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.