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The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography at Tate Modern

11 November 2016 | Belphoebe New

The latest Tate Modern exhibition encourages us to see photography from a new perspective.

As photography has advanced over the years, providing incredible accuracy and detail, it has become an integral part of the process of documenting reality. Yet between 1920 and 1950, photography was adopted for an entirely different purpose. It was used to transform and manipulate our images of the world, and create, as famed surrealist artist Salvador Dali remarked ‘an unprecedented reality.’ As part of a surrealist movement, photography inspired avant-garde artists to create new experiences.
 
This month, the Tate will bring one of the largest private collections of photography to their new wing at The Tate Modern. Sir Elton John has lent over 200 pieces to Tate from his extensive modernist photography collection of over 8000 images. His passion for the art form is clear, and we see through footage in the exhibition that his rooms at home are covered with his collection, and that he even sleeps with one of Man Ray’s most famous images Noire et Blanche above his bed. Through one man’s passion for collecting photography, the exhibition documents a crucial moment in art history, where artists adopted unconventional and abstract methods to not only effectively represent what was in front of the camera, but primarily offer a new perspective and transform visions of the modern world.
 
This coming of age of photography came at a time of extensive social change and artistic innovation more widely inspired by movements such as Surrealism and Dadaism. The first rooms mainly focus on the photographs of prominent cultural figures within these movements, such as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and Henri Matisse, giving a fascinating insight into the artistic developments of that time. A particular highlight is the portraits by Irving Penn of cultural figures such as Noel Coward, Gypsy Rose-Lee and Salvador Dali. Confined inside a small place, with walls that almost seem to close in on them, the subjects look surprisingly comfortable as the lack of space requires them to express themselves more creatively in the portraits.
 
Contrasting from the first room’s focus on photographing celebrity, the second room showcases the transformative powers of modernist photography, and explores how the experimental techniques used become more important than the subject themselves. With a focus on the body, subjects become distorted and fragmented, such as Berenice Abbott’s Portrait Of The Artist as A Young Woman and Anatomies by Man Ray. The techniques used by artists to transform and create new, surrealist realities with their images are fascinating, such as the synthetic tears on the face of Man Ray’s subject in Glass Tears and the mysterious lace veiling the face of Gloria Swanson in Edward Steichen’s iconic image. Many surrealist artists also played with masks to create an uncanny mirroring of the self, such as Berenice Abbott’s Jean Cocteau with Mask and perhaps the centerpiece of the whole exhibition, Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche.
 
As we move into the 1930s and 1940s, we see artists move to the street and pursue architectural and abstract photography. With the development of easily portable Leica film cameras, documenting and representing the changes occurring in the world was put firmly into focus. Documentary photography such as Dorothea Lange’s striking Migrant Mother and Helen Levitt’s street photography of 1940s New York sits side by side with some of the most abstract photography of the exhibition, with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexandr Rodchenko’s ‘worm-eye’ perspectives of the metropolis. By closing in on architectural elements and photographing them from different perspectives, above, down, below and through buildings, these photographs give us an insight into the abstract beauty of our surroundings that we may never have noticed before, the beauty of the everyday through mechanical means.
 
This exhibition is perhaps less about photographic technicality and ability and more about taking a relatively new art form and experimenting with its vast possibilities. These images force us to look at our surroundings and ourselves in a new experimental light, pushing the accepted conventions of portraiture and paving the way for photographic innovations today.
 
The Radical Eye – Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection runs from 10 November – 7 May 2017. Tickets are £16.50 for adults, £14.50 for concessions and free for members of Tate. Find out more.
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