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Tate makes up for lost time with the help of Elton John

Singer and other collectors are helping photography come in from the cold

Since Simon Baker joined the Tate in 2009 as the first curator of photography, the gallery has overhauled how it collects and presents photographic works, addressing what he describes as “one giant gap” in the national collection of Modern and contemporary art. The Tate established a photography acquisition committee the following year to help build strong relationships with leading collectors, which is paying off with important gifts and loans. In November more than 150 loans from Elton John’s collection go on show in The Radical Eye (10 November-7 May 2017) at Tate Modern: a coup for its curators of photography. Discussions are ongoing with the musician and his husband David Furnish about making some, as yet unspecified, key pieces from their collection available to the British public on a more permanent basis.

“The strategy has been to collect broadly and in-depth,” Baker says. “The plan involves fitting the photography collection into the broader collection of art, rather than establishing a separate photography department. This has proved very successful: walk around Tate Modern and you can see photos everywhere. They’re now embedded in the collection.” Photography is now on a par with other media at the Tate, he adds, which should please purists. “More than ten years ago, you’d see a work by Andreas Gursky going up the escalators at Tate Modern. That has all changed; photography is no longer outside the galleries.” There were photographic prints in the recent Georgia O’Keeffe show (closed 30 October), for instance.

“Photographic works also feature in the Living Cities display in the Switch House extension [including Boris Mikhailov, Red (1968-75)]. We plan to continue in this way, focusing on depth and texture. The Museum of Modern Art in New York began integrating its photographic collection in the same way, which shows that our approach is a good one,” Baker says.

The Tate has nonetheless played catch-up in building up its photography collection; it now has at least 5,000 photographic works. “In the past seven years, we’ve built up a definitive collection of post-war Japanese photography. Last year, there were photography shows across all four Tate museums [including Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process at Tate Britain].” The aim is to show a full retrospective by a living photographer at Tate Britain, as “this would send out a really important message. I expect it to happen very soon.”

Baker says that the Tate is collecting broadly in a “research-led way”, looking in depth at Eastern Europe. “There are some incredible works from Poland dating from the 1960 and 1970s. We are also focusing on South-East Asia and Latin America,” Baker says.

He insists, though, that he will not duplicate major UK photography collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London, or even European collections such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris. “I think it’s interesting that curators at institutions in New York might be acquiring the same things. We have to be sensible regarding what we acquire,” Baker adds.

Acquiring major works is, however, always a headache for cash-strapped public institutions. Baker admits that the market is challenging in certain areas. “Updating our Cindy Sherman holdings would, for instance, pose a significant challenge,” he says.

According to the Tate annual report for 2015/16, the photography acquisitions committee, comprising key patrons and philanthropists, helped acquire a group of images by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen of Finland and five works by the UK artist John Hilliard. The film producer Michael Wilson and the London-based collector Jack Kirkland are among the members of the photography acquisitions committee.

“We cannot specify the budget for photography acquisitions but can say that, in the past five years, we have made major acquisitions way beyond what we expected through not only the photography [acquisition] committee, but also through the other Tate acquisition committees, such as the Latin American committee,” Baker says.

“We’ve had to really think about how we collect, which is why we have built strong relationships with collectors,” he adds; in 2012, Eric and Louise Franck donated 1,400, mainly 20th-century works by photographers such as Bill Brandt. “These kinds of gifts are playing a huge role.”

Elton John’s eye for Modernist photography “The Tate has never organised an exhibition focusing exclusively on early 20th-century photography,” says Shoair Mavlian, an assistant curator at Tate Modern and co-curator of The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection (10 November-7 May 2017).

“The show features more than 70 artists, ranging from well-known names such as Man Ray to lesser known figures such as the US photographer Margaret de Patta,” Mavlian says. The timeframe of the exhibition runs from around 1920 to 1950, with thematic sections focusing on areas such as portraiture, still-life and experiments. The exhibition also highlights innovations such as photomontage and double exposure.

The show includes mainly vintage prints. “But in some cases, these are the first known print made by the photographer, such as André Kertész’s Underwater Swimmer (1917), which is the original contact print,” Mavlian says.

John told Tate Etc. magazine that Kertész’s photograph “blew me away”. When he saw the image and photographs by Man Ray and Edward Quigley, John learned that “these artists were able to do things that I thought only a painter could do.”