IN CONVERSATION: ELTON JOHN Highlight from the Gagosian Quarterly
January 2, 2018

January 2, 2018

It's sort of simple: you either collect things or you don't. I would love to be a minimalist, trust me, I love minimalism, and I think it is beautiful. It's just not in my nature. —Elton John

As 2018 begins, we take a moment to look back at our favorite Gagosian Quarterly articles from last year. In the Fall 2017 issue, we had the honor of interviewing Sir Elton John as the Tate exhibition, The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, came to a close. The celebrated musician spoke with Derek Blasberg about his love for photography, his method for collecting, and his enduring fascination with Man Ray.

Derek Blasberg: Let’s start at the beginning. When was your passion for photography first conceived?

Elton John: I got sober in 1990 and spent the new year basically doing nothing except concentrating on my recovery and rehabilitation into a normal life. In 1991, in the summer, I went to visit a friend called Alain-Dominique Perrin, who was the head of Cartier and a big photography collector. His wife Marie-Thérèse had a big collection at their house in the South of France, and I was staying there with [photographer] Herb Ritts and a photo dealer called David Fahey, who had a gallery in Los Angeles. We were at the house and looking at some photographs by [Horst P.] Horst and [Irving] Penn, and I went “Oh my god, these are incredible, these are so beautiful.” Having worked in an industry where you’re always having your photograph taken, it suddenly seemed odd that I wouldn’t have noticed the genre before.

DB: Why do you think you had never thought of photography as an art form?

EJ: Perhaps because I don’t like having my photograph taken I didn’t pay it much attention. But, on the spot, I bought some Herb Rittses, some Irving Penns, and some Horsts, about twelve photographs in total. That started the ball rolling. It coincided with me buying an apartment in Atlanta, because that’s where my ex-boyfriend lived and I had friends there. There was a gallery there called Jackson Fine Art, and I visited the owner, Jane, who introduced me to a lot of other photographers. I bought a lot of stuff from her but she also gave me a lot of stuff to read. I couldn’t believe I’d been so ignorant about this form of art, so I just devoured it! I always collected art; as a kid I collected posters, and then when I became Elton John I collected Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and paintings by Francis Bacon and René Magritte and things like that. In 1988, I sold almost everything I owned at an auction at Sotheby’s that lasted four days in London.

DB: What was the reason for that sale? You wanted a clean slate, or something more introspective?

EJ: I must have had a premonition that I would get sober. My house was full of stuff on every floor: Lalique lamps and Tiffany lamps and nowhere to put them. I thought, “The only way to get rid of this is to get rid of everything.” I kept four paintings, some cars, and a bit of jewelry, and I sold everything else. I was very lucky because in 1989, just after I sold it, there was en enormous financial crash. So I started collecting again, but mainly with photography, contemporary art, and glass, which I’ve always collected. Photography became my main passion.

DB: You once told me that you were a tidy child who was meticulous about toys. Do you think your penchant for collecting fermented there?

EJ: I was born in 1947 and I grew up just after the war. It was a time when if you had something you looked after it because you couldn’t afford to replace it. Gramophone records were extremely popular in our house. Everything I bought I kept in pristine condition. Books I loved and cherished. I’ve always kept things neat and tidy. I always thought I’d be a very good secretary!

DB: Was the art of collecting fulfilling in a more spiritual way?

EJ: In the early days my parents argued a lot, so I felt the need to disappear and surround myself with things that couldn’t hurt me. Objects couldn’t hurt me. I was safe with them. So maybe that’s the reason. It’s sort of simple: you either collect things or you don’t. I would love to be a minimalist, trust me, I love minimalism, and I think it’s beautiful. It’s just not in my nature.

DB: I say that the difference between a hoarder and a collector is good taste.

EJ: Yes! I started collecting photography in 1991 and had an apartment in Atlanta, a 2,200-square-foot duplex. I was collecting photography in such a ravenous and voracious way, that apartment morphed into what is now 18,500 square feet and comprises several apartments and two duplexes. I just kept buying the apartment next door, and the one next door to that. In the apartment I hang photography salon style, all next to each other. If I’ve got it, I want to live with it! It’s not everything, but I’m very, very lucky to get up in the morning and just be inspired by the wonderful things I have.

DB: Let’s start with the earlier works in your collection, which are rare nowadays. When did you get those?

EJ: I got those at a time when everything was much more available. Irving Penns were available at reasonably cheap prices compared to what they’re at now. Vintage prints were readily available. Nowadays, if I wanted to start collecting I couldn’t afford to.

DB: Give me an example.

EJ: When I started collecting, I could get an Irving Penn vintage print for $5,000.

DB: Wow, now they’re half a million!

EJ: At least.

DB: That’s an impressive return on an investment.

EJ: Perhaps, but I’ve never collected anything for investment’s sake. I’ve never thought, “I’ve gotta have that because it will make money one day.” Never been my thing. I get as much joy going to a gallery and buying something by a new artist for $1,500 dollars and seeing them emerge as a great artist.

DB: That’s great to hear, because in my opinion the nature of a true collector is following your gut.

EJ: My rationale is, collect what you like. It doesn’t matter if it’s valuable. If it gives you pleasure and you wake up every day enjoying it, that’s the value. It can be comics, it can be books, it can be records, it can be artifacts. I understand why people collect anything. I used to save all my comics and all my music magazines in piles, and eventually I had no place to put them so they had to go. It was a very sad day when I had to get rid of them.

DB: How do you discover new photographers now? Do you go to art fairs and photo shows?

EJ: I don’t really like art fairs. It’s not what art is about for me. It’s become a social thing. I like going to photography fairs more because you’re just looking at photo booths and there’s no razzmatazz, but having said that I haven’t been to one of those for a long time either. I’ve been collecting photojournalism for a while, so I’m always scouring newspapers and always trying to collect what I think are the important photographs of the time. Photojournalism was so important in the days when I grew up. When I first saw Elvis Presley in Life magazine, I thought he was an alien! But things like Life magazine and Look magazine paved the way for great photographers to show their work.

DB: The role of photojournalism as a genre of art is something that’s entirely new. One piece in your collection that I think is especially moving is Falling Man, which was taken on the morning of September 11th, 2001, of an unidentified person leaping out of a tower of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames.

EJ: Took me a long time to get that.

DB: Did you want that specific image?

EJ: I wanted that specific image. It was originally printed in a Pennsylvania newspaper and was taken down from its website almost immediately. It’s a distressing photograph, yes. But on the other hand, there is a thing about art, in general, that the more tragic the subject matter the more beautiful the picture is. In that photograph, he’s falling in a straight parallel line, half the building is in sunlight and half the building is in darkness. I have a sculpture on the main floor [of my house gallery] by Damien Hirst with a dove and at the bottom a skull, and it’s all about the fine line between life and death. This photograph with the man falling in a straight line from the twin towers symbolizes that to the nth degree.

I collected 2,000 photographs from 9/11. There was an organization that took over two empty stores downtown, and Ingrid Sischy, who was my dear friend and a big advisor, took me down there to see them. People donated printed photographs that were $25 each. They hung them on washing lines with clothes-pegs. Ingrid and I were in there and I’m going, “Oh my god, this is the best still life I’ve ever seen, oh my god, look at this it’s so beautiful.” To be so excited about something so tragic was perverse. But if you look at some of the great paintings that are truly tragic—think of Goya!—the beauty in them is fantastic. The Mona Lisa is kind of a semitragic photograph, and think of the beauty that she’s given us for generations. Or Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), which was part of the Tate exhibition: the beauty in that photograph is stunning but what’s happening is not beautiful. It’s savage. It’s a perverse thing with art: the most gruesome and tragic thing can provide you with the most beautiful subject matter.

DB: Currently you have about 8,000 photographs in your collection.

EJ: Yes, but it’s growing by the day. As I was sitting waiting for this interview, I saw a picture by Martin Schoeller of Barack Obama, and I e-mailed my curator and said that I wanted to acquire it. Maybe I’ll see something on the front page of a newspaper, or someone will say they found a beautiful Richard Avedon that I don’t have. It’s an ongoing quest to find something special.

DB: Not just anything, though. I know that you’re meticulous about the condition and provenance of your collection.

EJ:  I want vintage prints by the artists themselves. For example, I’ve been looking for the Diane Arbus photograph of the boy with a hand grenade in Central Park. It’s a great photograph and a wonderful image, but I'm waiting for one in perfect condition. It’s like buying a bad used car: if you’re going to buy a classic car you’re not going to buy a classic car with a great big dent in it, are you? I want the quality. I think the great thing about this show is that the quality of the prints has been so recognized. The head of the National Gallery said about my collection, “Not only does he have some of the best prints, he has the prints.” And that, for me, is what I did from the word go.

DB: In 1990 you knew nothing about photography and hated having your picture taken. Now, as a collector and some would say expert in the genre, has your perspective changed?

EJ: I still don’t like having my photograph taken. I’m not comfortable with it, and that probably won’t change. But now I can look at some of the portraits in a different way. I’ve had my picture taken by the legends we’ve already mentioned: Avedon, Penn, Ritts.

DB: And now you have an appreciation for them you didn’t have before.

EJ: Juergen Teller took some photos of me when I first came out of treatment that are very interesting because I look so different. I look untroubled and I look happy to be back in the world of the living. Conversely, Herb Ritts took a picture of me for the front cover of my album Sleeping with the Past, where I have a white sliver of hair poking out. That wasn’t a good era for me as far as personal happiness and drug abuse—it was just before I got sober. You can see that in the picture too.

DB: What do you think about the notion that we all have cameras on the ends of our cell phones and you can post them on the Internet in real time? Does that enter your world of photography?

EJ: In general, I find camera phones very irritating! But having said that, the film Tangerine was all shot on an iPhone and it was fabulous. If it gets people into photography I’m not averse to it. In that regard I embrace it! But I’m terrible when it comes to technology because I don’t know much about it. I don’t have a mobile phone, for example. I’ve never had one.

DB: You’ve never had a cell phone?

EJ: No. I have an iPad because when I’m traveling I want to FaceTime my children, and it’s also very useful for looking at photographs. But the phone? I don’t need one, thank you very much.

DB: Is there anything specific that you’re looking for when collecting photographs? Do you prefer portraits, or do you dislike landscapes?

EJ: I look at anything. Everything. I have a very quick eye. I can walk into a gallery and go straight to the thing I like. It’s the same when I go shopping, because I don’t like hanging around.

DB: You like going to galleries, though, right?

EJ: I tell people it’s like listening to music. I don’t download one track off an album because I want to hear the whole thing. I like going to a show because I don’t want to see a single work, I want to look at the whole thing. I like to visit a gallery when there’s no one there. It’s not really worth going to an opening because you don’t see the works in their proper light.

DB: Museums?

EJ: I love going to exhibitions, but I don’t like going to museums because I can’t buy anything. Ha!

DB: If you had to pick three of your favorite pictures from the Tate exhibition, which would they be?

EJ: I would have to say Underwater Swimmer (1917), by André Kertész, because that’s a hundred years old this year and it has influenced so many photographs and paintings. Even though it’s a small size, it’s quite astonishing, with the sunlight on the swimming trunks and the ripples in the water. Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange would be another. Oh god, this is so difficult! And, third, I would have to say Man Ray’s Noire et blanche positive (1926).

DB: You sleep under that one in Atlanta, don’t you?

EJ: Yes, I do. And I sometimes think if it falls off the wall and kills me I’d be happy to die by Man Ray. At least I’d have gone out in style!

DB: I know that when you were a kid, you had a poster of Man Ray’s on the wall of your bedroom. Tell me: did you ever think in a million years that you would own the original?

EJ: I never thought in a million years I would become Elton John! And that all this would happen to me, let alone collect photography and have an amazingly blessed life! I can say now, from where I am in my life, I am so lucky to have been able to acquire these things and also to live and work in an industry that is surrounded by such amazing things all the time. There was a time when I was not conscious of all of this, when I didn’t notice it. But that’s the difference between being drunk and being sober. Clarity. It’s as clear as night and day.

This interview originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of the Gagosian Quarterly.