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Sir Elton John: the sound of The Radical Eye

Delve into the musician's private photography collection and the music inspired by it

A photograph of Sir Elton John by photographer Terry O'Neill

© Terry O'Neill

To coincide with the current exhibition The Radical Eye, Sir Elton John explores the relationship between music and modernist photography.

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is on at Tate Modern until 21 May 2017.

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Art is really a reflection of the times we live in, each musical movement from the beginning of the twentieth century, from ragtime to traditional jazz, to big bands, to blues, to jazz, to rock and roll, country music, it reflects a time in people’s lives. Visual art does exactly the same.

1. Elvis Presley - Heartbreak Hotel

When I first saw Elvis Presley, it was in Life magazine, I was maybe 12 years old. I was sitting in the hairdressers having my hair cut and I picked up a copy of Life Magazine and I saw a picture of Elvis Presley and I thought, who is this man?  [...] I wanted to be him, I wanted to meet him. [...] And that’s what the power of those magazines at that time, and the power of photography.

2. Christine and the Queens - Tilted 

I think art at this time in the twentieth century was so exciting, as was literature, as was film, as was music, everything was just so new and so exciting. There were no boundaries and that’s the way it should be.

Recently, I did a concert with four artists [...] One was English, Rosie Lowe, one was French, Christine and the Queens, two from America, Gallant and Parker Millsap. We learnt their songs, they learnt my song and we collaborated. [...] As artists we were all on a par, because we were enjoying what we were doing. This is what happened when these artists and writers, you know, at the time of Gertrude Stein and people like that [...] It was an amazing time to be alive really.  

3. Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam

There’s a quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson about fellow photographer André Kertész that every time his shutter clicked, he could hear his heartbeat. What a beautiful thing to say about another artist. I think as a musician, I can say things like that about people [...] There are so many great contemporaries, or people that came before me that have influenced me, like Nina Simone especially.

André Kertész Underwater Swimmer 1917

André Kertész Underwater Swimmer 1917 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection © Estate of André Kertész/ Higher Pictures

4. Aretha Franklin - Think

Listening to something like Think by Aretha Franklin, which is just one of the most incredibly moving soulful pieces and you think, can you imagine being in the control room when they were playing that and singing that? They must have been going nuts and it’s the same feeling when you’ve edited a great film, when you’ve produced a great play or directed a great play, and you look at it and think, oh my God. [...] It’s so great when you’re a part of a thing and I think photography is very much being part of something, because there’s, you know, the taking of the photograph, the composition of it.

5. Cole Porter - Night and Day

I want the public to look at Man Ray’s photography and think, oh my God, how beautiful is this and it was done so long ago, but it looks so modern, it looks so relevant.

If a great artist is a great artist, they will endure forever. If you write a great song, the whole point of writing a song is hoping that it will last forever [...] you want it to be a memory for people for years and years and years and years. That’s why Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all those people, people still sing their songs, because they’re wonderful songs.

If you write something that endures forever and you’re associated with it, then you can sleep easy. I’m not in it to be in the B group. I’m in it to be the A group and that’s what these photographers wanted as well.

Man Ray Glass Tears 1932

Man Ray Glass Tears 1932 The Sir Elton John Photographic Collection © Man Ray Trust/ ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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