Thursday, 25 May 2017

Broken Social Scene:It's all gonna break.

If you were to make a Venn diagram of Broken Social Scene fans and Ariana Grande fans it's probably fair to say the central intersection would not be particularly heavily populated. But any music fan knows that the gig going experience is pretty much the same across the board. It's just as much about meeting up with your friends, dressing up, and/or having a few drinks as it is about the music. The music acts as a conduit to bring like minded people together. Virtually all my friendships are predicated, in some way, around a love of music. The friendships are the most important part but sometimes the music does the heavy lifting.

Until events at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015 and Manchester this week the worst fears of gig-goers were overpriced drinks and missing the last train home. As Salman Abedi murdered more children in a matter of minutes than Ian Brady ever did in his lifetime that all changed. Now, like flying on a plane or taking a tube, people have been made to feel insecure in the environments they once felt most safe. Hatred will only fuel those bastards and reasoning will never work with such twisted ideologies. All we can do is carry on taking tubes to gigs and meeting up with our friends. In fact we should do it more. They want war, murder, and hatred. Let's not give it to them. Let's show them something they really can't stand:- love, kindness, dancing and music. Not to them. But to each other.

Broken Social Scene had been in Manchester the night before they arrived at Brixton Academy and it had clearly been a highly emotional night for all concerned. Kevin Drew was way more chatty than normal, as if he needed to talk. He only referred a couple of times directly to what had happened (including a dedication of the song Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl) but his incitement of the crowd to show love to each other clearly came down from Manchester with him.

It was a bold decision, and one that handsomely paid off, to kick off the set with Lover's Spit, possibly their best known, slowest, and, yes, most emotional song. It released a warm glow into the room that only occasionally let up during the next two hours. Broken Social Scene play long sets. There's a lot of them. At times there were four guitarists on stage.

On tracks like the jet propelled, almost motorik, 7/4 Shoreline and Fire Eye'd Boy those guitarists put in a shift. One of the things that make Broken Social Scene so endearing live, though, is that they always look like they're having fun, enjoying their work. Witness Brendan Canning, foot on the monitor, thrusting his guitar skywards as if to both mock, and celebrate, all those guitar heroes that went before him.
Sometimes the noise all four of them make adds up to one J Mascis (Cause=Time being a prime example), occasionally they drift into noodling but they always pull it back both quickly and deftly. Drew and Canning run a tight ship but allow other members of the band their moment in the limelight. Baseball capped Emily Haines and Julie Penner get to dominate sections of the gig, not least on the almost r&b flavoured Hug of Thunder, and stop it from getting too 'boys with their toys'.

New material like Protest Song and Skylines are decent, certainly a lot better than the tunes many returning bands serve up, and will probably soon grow into crowd favourites but the air of determined celebration of music in the aftermath of tragedy rendered old classics like Lover's Spit, Texico Bitches (from the school of slanted and enchanted leftfield rock), and set closer Almost Crimes the standouts of the evening. Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day) goes as far as to pay tribute to one of those leftfield rock influences and Backyards, with it's rippling keyboard flourishes, could almost serve as a tribute to Grandaddy's recently prematurely deceased Kevin Garcia.
I had a lovely evening out with my friends Darren and Ian, we ate great Brazilian food in Brixton before the gig, we had a couple of pints in the scorching sunlight, we spent an evening listening to wonderful music, and then I took the bus home safe and sound. Thanks to cunts like Salman Abedi a child one-sixth of my age never arrived, and never will arrive, back home from her concert this week.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A London walk on the theme of....Art Deco,

Having wandered around the streets of London for more than twenty years, often stopping to take in the architecture and then reading about it in the collection of books I'd amassed over the years, I considered that I'd accumulated enough trivia to be reasonably well informed on the subject and proposed, via Facebook, the idea of an architectural walk. The theme was Art Deco but it could've been Brutalism, Art Nouveau, Christopher Wren, or many other things.

Thankfully a good few friends got back to me saying they'd be interested and it was even suggested that, at some point in the future, there could be a potential business venture in it. For now, however, I just wanted a nice day out with friends, a good walk, and a couple of beers. Luckily that all came to pass.

In preparing a brief script about the walk I'd uncovered a few nuggets of information that I was looking forward to sharing with my friends. My main concerns were now about the weather (thunderstorms had loomed on the forecast all week) and a slight apprehension, bordering on stage fright, about having to curate the whole thing and keep it interesting and manageable for a reasonably disparate group of friends. I wouldn't say I was the consummate professional but I think I just about pulled it off.

We convened in Waterloo station, in Benugo on the mezzanine, by the big clock at mid-day. The concourse was teeming with stag and hen parties. I saw butchers, cows, Cleopatras, Pokemons, and a barbershop quartet. Our reasonably soberly attired (there were a couple of honourable exceptions and I'd expect nothing less) posse wandered out of the station and down to the south bank of the Thames.

At this point I realised that what with reading my 'scripts', trying to make sure people don't get lost, and focusing on the job in hand I wouldn't have much time for photos so I thank Colin Robertson for providing the photos on this blog.

First building up was the Oxo Tower, one of the few non-listed buildings on our route. Built in the late 19th century and then purchased in the 20s by the Liebig's Extract of Meat Company (founded in the UK by German chemist Justus von Liebig) and used as a cold store. A giant fridge basically. Liebig made Oxo stock cubes and when in 1928/29 all of the building, except the river facing façade was demolished Albert Moore rebuilt it and added its Art Deco tower. Moore wanted illuminated advertising signs but as skyline adverts were banned at the time he was refused permission. So he designed the famous O, X, and O shaped windows and if that happened to spell out the name of their most famous product well that was surely just a coincidence, eh? The tower spent a good part of the last century derelict and under threat of demolition but in the 90s the architectural firm Lifschutz Davidson refurbished it and, in 1997, it won an award for urban regeneration. It now has gallery space, shops, flats, a restaurant, and you can even get married in there.

Across the river you can see Shell Mex House (below), a Grade II listed, suave, almost New York in style, edifice. Originally the Cecil Hotel, when it opened in 1886 it was the largest in Europe with 800 bedrooms. The riverside façade, topped by the biggest clock in London, was remodelled in 1931 by Ernest Joseph and stands in comparison with Howard Robertson's lugubrious tower (also for Shell) on our side of the river.

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We crossed over Blackfriars Bridge. The 3rd Thames crossing constructed in London and the 2nd oldest standing (after Westminster Bridge). Blackfriars Bridge is no longer a toll bridge and has quite a grisly story from recent years attached. In 1982 Roberto Calvi, God's banker, who had links to both the Vatican and the Mafia was found hanging from the bridge. In Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus Heath Ledger's character Tony is found, like Calvi, hanging from the bridge too.

On the north side of the bridge you'll find Unilever House. Like many of the tour a mish-mash of styles this one fuses Art Deco with Neoclassical elements, not least the huge Ionic columns, and even Baroque. Grade II listed with no ground floor windows to reduce traffic noise. On its corners there are statues of humans restraining horses. They're by William Dick and called Controlled Energy. There are mermen and mermaids by Gilbert Ledward and the lifts have been designed by renowned paedophile Eric Gill.

At Ludgate Circus we took a left into Fleet Street. Ludgate Circus was historically the main connection between the cities of Westminster and London and underneath it runs London's largest underground river, the Fleet (which starts on Hampstead Heath and seems to be crying out to be walked one day). Ludgate's name comes from the belief that once stood there was created by the pre-Roman king of Britain, Lud. London is said to mean Lud's Fortress. There's a branch of Leon there now where a pub called the King Lud once stood and you can see medallions of Lud himself over its doors.

On Fleet Street we stopped to take in the Daily Express Building (below, 1932, Ellis Clarke and Atkinson with Sir Owen Williams). In an unusually generous act for an architect the top three floors retreat behind the gantry to allow more sunshine to reach the people on street level. We couldn't go in but that didn't stop me telling my still not flagging  yet audience about the staircase being done out to resemble Cleopatra's tomb with twisted snakes as handrails. Private Eye refer to the building as the Black Lubyanska after a notorious Muscovite KGB prison.

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Past the Royal Courts of Justice, St.Clement Danes, and St.Mary-le-Strand we reach the Savoy. The Thames facing side is not Art Deco at all but the stainless steel Strandside is. Built by Richard D'Oyly Carte with the profits of Gilbert & Sullivan musicals it opened in 1889. Grade II listed again here's a list of a few of the famous who've stayed there:- Edward VII, HG Wells, Monet, Whistler, GB Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Nellie Melba. Al Jolson, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Liz Taylor, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. Larry Olivier and Vivien Leigh met there and Bob Dylan filmed the video to Subterranean Homesick Blues (which I nervously renamed Suburban Homesick Blues) in a nearby alley and Richard Harris lived, and nearly died, there. Savoy Court is the only street in London where you're legally required to drive on the right!

Then, have a banana, we all went down the Strand. But not too far. The skies opened up. We retreated in a packed Coal Hole for a quick drink and by the time we'd supped up the rain had stopped and we had a brief stop outside the Adelphi Theatre. A building that received its Grade II listing in 1987. It was founded in 1806 as Sans Pareil and reopened in 1819 as the Adelphi going on to stage many Dickens adaptations. Renovated several times, once knocking down the nearby pub The Hampshire Hog (appropriate as the Strand is the old Roman Road to Silchester). In 1897 the actor William Terris was stabbed to death backstage by a rival thespian Richard Archer Prince and it's said that Terris' ghost now haunts the theatre. The present incarnation, by Ernest Schaufelberg, opened in 1930 and is currently owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company.

In about 600AD there were houses on The Strand but people moved in to the city and it returned to fields until, in the Middle Ages, it became part of that London Westminster link. The Eleanor Cross, which stands outside Charing Cross, station is said to be where distances from London are measured. It's part of a series of ceremonial crosses marking overnight stays of the deceased queen of Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, who died in Lincoln and had her body returned to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. Crosses stood in Waltham, St.Albans, and Northampton but most are now fairly ruined. This one was demolished by parliament during the English Civil War in 1647 and reconstructed in 1865. 

Through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall, a quick jig with the Ugandan protestors outside Downing Street, round Parliament Square and on to 55 Broadway. We'd briefly passed Charles Holden's Zimbabwe House (with its decapitated statues by Jacob Epstein) on The Strand but this was Holden in his imperial phase. Now, predictably, being converted into luxury flats the grimy edifice won a RIBA medal when it was built in 1931 as an HQ for the London Underground. It was our first Grade I listed building on the walk and rightly so. Sculptures by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, and Eric Gill adorn the building. The Epstein sculptures caused outcry at the time due to their nudity. Newspapers campaigned to have them removed but after Epstein chopped an inch and a half of the male model's penis the furore quietened down. I can't think why!

As much as Gill was the villain of our walk Holden to me was the hero. Born in Bolton his mum died and his dad went bankrupt during his childhood. He worked as a lab assistant and a railway clerk but  eventually found his way into architecture where he, quite obviously, flourished. He wasn't afraid of being pretentious and claimed his buildings were inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. He built a ridiculous number of tube stations. Archway, Arnos Grove, Balham, Clapham Common, Green Park, Holborn, Highgate, Piccadilly Circus, Southgate, Westminster, and Tootings BEC and Broadway - they're all his.

From here we cut through St.James's Park, saw the pelicans, Egyptian geese, swans, and ducks, and rocked up at Simpson's of Piccadilly. Now a huge Waterstones it was once a huge menswear store, the biggest in the UK when it was built by Joseph Emberton (with the help of Hungarian artist and Bauhaus director Laszlo Moholy-Nagy) in the mid-30s. Another Grade I building in the 50s Jeremy Lloyd worked there as a junior assistant and used his experiences there (and the shop itself) as a basis for Are You Being Served?

From here we wandered through Leicester Square taking in the Prince of Wales Theatre (established 1884, rebuilt 1937, refurbished by Cameron Mackintosh in 2004) where Gracie Fields sang to the workmen as she laid the foundation stones. Designed by Robert Cromie and home to comedians like Bob Hope, Morecambe and Wise, Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, and Norman Wisdom.

Also in Leicester Square we took in the Odeon. Oscar Deutsch who formed the group actually came from Balsall Heath in Birmingham and was the son of a Hungarian Jewish scrap metal merchant, Leopold. He eventually passed his business on to J Arthur Rank, a man more famous for his role in rhyming slang these days. The Odeon was on the site of a former Turkish bath.

In Covent Garden the Cambridge Theatre was mostly under wraps so we couldn't appreciate the Wimperson, Simpson, and Guthrie built Grade II building or its interior, by Serge Chermayeff (the Russian born architect of the De Le Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea) which famously housed both Jerry Springer the Opera and several 1964 performances by Bruce Forsyth.

I could talk about Seven Dials itself though. Once a slum of such repute that both Charles Dickens and WS Gilbert both passed comment on its 'lowliness' it did at least have a pub on each of its seven corners. Only one still stands. Even in the 1920s it was still a byword for urban poverty. That's all changed now as well-to-do types loiter around the sundial unveilved by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Freemason's Hall (below, 1927-33, Ashley and Newman) is the HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England and the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch. Sounds like a load of old bollocks but its an impressive building nonetheless. Initially built as a memorial to the 3,225 masons who died in World War I. It's even appeared in a Westlife video!

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Round the British Museum we come face to face with the megalithic Senate House. Charles Holden's work again. This one dates from 1932-37 and the plan, originally, was to make it even bigger but World War II put pay to that. During that war it was used as the Ministry of Information and inspired Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (not sure who came up with that title first), and George Orwell's 1984. Orwell's wife had worked there. Some say the building's totalitarian or even Stalinist, Evelyn Waugh said the building insulted the sky, but many loved it. Not least Erich Mendelsohn (another who worked on the De La Warr pavilion as well as the Einstein Tower in Potsdam) who claimed London had no finer building. Unsubstantiated rumours say Adolf Hitler was also a fan and had earmarked it as his London base after the Nazi invasion.

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I could see that some feet were aching, a few were midly flagging, people needed a wee, people definitely wanted a drink. So I thought on my feet and cut out Palladium/Ideal House (a scaled down version of the American Radiator building made famous by a Georgie O'Keeffe painting) and Claridge's (rumoured to have been ceded, for one day only, to Yugoslavia, so Crown Prince Alexander could be born on Yugoslav soil) and stop for a very refreshing drink in The Marlbrough Arms. I think it worked. People seemed happy with the decision anyway and, suitably refreshed, we headed off through Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia to see the Beeb!
Broadcasting House (above, 1931, Val Myers and Watson-Hart) also has sculptures from Eric Gill (not the only paedophile to enter the building, that's for sure). Serge Chermayeff provided interiors since removed by the BBC and in the radio theatre you can hear the rumble of Bakerloo trains passing by below. The cone on the roof of the building was unveiled by Ban Ki-Moon in 2008 and is a memorial to journalists killed in the lines of duty. It's called Breathing and it's by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa.

Broadcasting House (and the Langham Hotel) seem to rhyme with neaby All Soul's Church, built by John Nash in the Regency style in 1824 for George IV. Nash also did the less impressive Buckingham Palace and the wonderful and bonkers Brighton Pavilion.

Further up Portland Place you come to the RIBA HQ. They have great exhibitions and you can even take a shower in the Grade II listed George Grey Wornum building which stands resplendent in surprisingly clean Portland Stone. Wornum won a competition for the commission to build it that had 3,600 entries. His other work includes ocean liners and a girl's college in Alexandria. Probably a good job Gill wasn't called in on that job.

Up to Mornington Crescent and our final stop was the full Egyptian revival of the Carreras Cigarette Factory. Also called the Black Cat Factory, Arcadia Works, or Greater London House it goes by many names and one of our walkers, Linda, works there now for the British Heart Foundation (ASOS and Wonga are also in there these days). Built between 1926 and 1928 by the architects ME & OH Collins & AG Porri to house the growing Carreras cigarette makers ,after fags became more popular after WWI and they needed to move from City Road, it was designed not long after Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun which had made ancient Egypt so en pointe. It was made as a temple to the Egyptian god Bastet and was going to be called Bast House but they dropped that in case people nicknamed it Bastard House. It was the first building in the UK to use pre-stressed concrete and the first to have air conditioning. It was also a good place to end our walk and head to the pub.

We had a quick drink in The Edinboro' Castle (where Ian, Poppy, and Peter put in a brief appearance) and then a few of us went to Masala Zone for a curry. I had a fairly basic (but tasty) paneer dish but Colin and Valia, who both went for some banana and suran (?) thing, were braver and rewarded for their bravery in ordering. A dwindling band of us went for a couple more drinks before I headed home tired, satisfied with how it'd gone, and having learnt a few things about what worked and what didn't. I'm going to do another soon. It'll be Brutalist next time and the walk will probably be a bit shorter and hopefully in even better weather.

Thanks to Colin, Shep, Pam, Valia, Adam, Cheryl, Darren, Tommy (an absolute star who, at four years old, not only kept up with all the grown ups but at the 10 mile walk was still suggesting running races), Dena, Linda, and Sanda for joining me. I had a wonderful time and though the buildings, the beers, the walking, and the curry were all fun it was the company, as ever, that really made it. See you soon.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Justin Mortmer:It Is Here.

Whilst not as overtly political as recent shows by Gideon Mendel or Bouchra Khalili Parafin Gallery's 'It Is Here' by Justin Mortimer at least seeks to say something, even if that something is a little unclear, about the troubling times we now live in. It's certainly a change in subject matter, if less so in style, from his prior portraits of such establishment figures as Harold Pinter, Sir Steven Redgrave, David Bowie, and even the Queen.

While portraiture is his thing, he won the BP Portrait Award back in 1991 aged just 21, the figures in his new paintings are, for the most part, masked, and clad head to toe in hazmat suits looking like they're inspecting the site of an alien visitation or running a meth lab in Breaking Bad. Elsewhere they may be represented by just a pair of hands or even an entire naked torso with the face covered.

Perhaps he's saying something about how the new world order, even more so than the one it's replacing, is dehumanising, making mere ciphers, of those of us that live under its rule. It's hard to say because, despite the beauty of the often stark yellows and purples he employs, there's little actual political comment. Just a sense of over-riding dread.

Witness (2016)

Zona (2016)
That's fine. Art exists to question, not necessarily to answer, and these works definitely ask a lot of questions. Sometimes the titles give clues. Odessa must refer to the current conflict in Ukraine, but Witness, Zone, and the centrepiece It Is Here could all refer to a number of conflicts, refugee situations, or other crises currently affecting the world.
The A4 sheet of paper you can pick up at the desk on your way in suggests Mortimer is reflecting upon recent events in Syria, Afghanistan, Calais, West Africa, the US, and, yes, Ukraine but if you can ascertain which painting relates to which trouble spot then you're sharper than me.
I don't think that's really the point though. I think what Mortimer's trying to show is that bad times are bad times wherever you live, whoever you are. The reasons for these problems are manifold and confusing and the solutions unclear and sullied by the fact that in creating poverty and unsafety for huge numbers of people there's a small number of very powerful people who can get obscenely rich on the back of it. I attended a talk recently by a man who'd been living and working in Ukraine for some years and he said that, if they wanted, the war could've ended years ago but there's too many people making too much money out of it for that to happen either now or in the near future. That's how the military industrial complex works - and it works the same all over the world.

Monitor (2016-17)

It Is Here (2016)

Odessa (2016)
The palette Mortimer employs reminds me of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket (that's the one that saw eminent critic John Ruskin accuse Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face) . Its striations, splats of paint, and borderline abstractions bring that comparison further home but the lineage continues past Whistler and right back to Turner.
Mortimer is bold enough to do something new with this style though. Both in his rendering of the paint and in his addition of contemporary elements. The paintings downstairs (Widow, Slinter, The Lie) are populated with familiar items of everyday office furniture:- plastic chairs, ring binders, coffee cups etc; juxtaposed into a more unsettling environment. Taken in conjunction with the scenes of chemical warfare and poverty in the upper room they seem to hint at what Hannah Arendt called the 'banality of evil'. How decisions that affect, often destroy and end, people's lives are taken by bureaucrats in air conditioned offices far far away. They're just doing their job. Just getting on with life best they can.

Hoax I (2017)

Hoax II (2017)

Widow (2017)

Slinter (2017)
These are very beautiful paintings, and there is no doubt beauty to be had even in the darkest of times, but they depict a world that took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and rather than correct itself insists, as pig-headedly as a stubborn motorist, that they were right all along. The further downhill we continue to roll in the wrong direction the steeper the hill those remaining will one day have to climb. In Mortimer's Fugue a lone figure looks out at the mess in front of him as if a sudden realisation has fallen over him that he's been (at least partly) responsible for the mess he finds himself, and we find ourselves, in. The options in front of him don't look good. In fact they look utterly grim. Pray to a non-existent God, sling a noose around your neck, accept the status quo, or continue with the Sisyphean task of rolling that stone up that hill.
Justin Mortimer may've opened a window on a very bleak worldview indeed but he's done it so beautifully that if we let the fresh air in it may not be too late to change things for the better. Inhale while you can for it's gonna be a long, and painful, fight against the masters of hate and division who are now raising their heads above the parapet, bolder, and more emboldened, than any time since the end of the second World War.

Kult VIII (2016)

The Lie (2017)

Fugure (2016-17)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Photograph Collector.

Anyone who knows anything about Elton John (no need for knighthoods here) will probably know that he has something of an addictive personality. After his musical career (with songs that range from wonderful to the utterly dire), his tantrums, and his relationship with David Furnish it's probably his defining feature.

In a small room halfway round Tate Modern's The Radical Eye:Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection (in the Switch House, now rechristened the Blavatnik Building) Elton explains how, on sobering up in 1990, photography became his new obsession, or one of his new obsessions. From knowing next to nothing about it to buying a larger house in Atlanta than he needed just to store his growing collection Elton has, somewhat predictably, bought a lot of photography. He might've spent more on photos than flowers.

At least he has impeccable taste. The selection on loan to the Tate all date from the first half of the last century but range from portraiture and landscapes to abstractions and other experimental work. As you might expect there's a keen appreciation of the male form - but also an equally prurient eye glances over the female body too. I visited with my friend Owen over Xmas and then again this weekend and it was a pleasure both times.

Artists like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray (who's all over this show) sought to find out what the camera could see that the human eye couldn't. Moholy-Nagy went as far as to suggest that photography could radically change not just what we see but how we see. He called it the 'new vision' and felt photography shouldn't simply aim to emulate other art forms but strike out on its own, a bold new form in its own right. Man Ray's Rayograph and the Dutch born vegetarian horticulturalist Johan Hagemeyer came good on Moholy-Nagy's promises. Man Ray may ape Soviet constructivist styles but the lumonisty in his work could only have come from manipulation of light, chemicals, and paper.

Hagemeyer, like Frantisek Drtikol and Imogen Cunningham, finds beauty in the stolen moment, the everyday. Shadows, oil tanks, statues standing alone forsaken like clipped elements of de Chirico's metaphysical landscape paintings. Considering some of this stuff is nearly a century old it's alarmingly modern.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - View from the Berlin Radio Tower (1928)

Man Ray - Rayograph (1923)

Imogen Cunningham - Oil Tanks (1940)

Frantisek Drtikol - Old Prague (1912)

Johan Hagemeyer - Untitled (Power Lines), San Francisco (1928)
Man Ray's portraiture wasn't quite so brave as his rayograph work but in capturing Picasso, Matisse, Dora Maar, Satie, Brancusi, Breton, Derain, Tanguy, and, of course, himself he managed to document many of the great and the good of the Paris art world he inhabited. Hagemeyer couldn't help but make a detail of Dali's exuerbant showmanship, Stieglitz's portrait of his lover Georgia O'Keeffee captures something of their complicated relationship, Edward Weston (whose photograph of his lover Tina Modotti is matched with her's of his - how romantic) looks Stravinsky straight in the eye, and James Van Der Zee does something none of the rest of them bother to. He gets off his arse and heads down to Harlem to meet people who aren't famous. As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance his work does wonders in opening a window on to the rebirth of the African-American arts scene in the 1920s.
Duke Ellington would've been playing in New York City to both those crowds and the uptown ones during that decade so it seems incongruous perhaps that Irving Penn's portrait of one of the most important musicians of the last century sees him confined in a tight corner. Perhaps he was trying to show that Ellington was always striving to break out from constrictions, be they racial or musical. These portraits are psychological as much as they're physical.

Man Ray - Pablo Picasso (1922)

Johan Hagemeyer - Salvador Dali (1944)

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe (1922)

Edward Weston - Igor Stravinsky (1935)

James Van Der Zee - Portrait, Harlem (1934)

Irving Penn - Duke Ellington, New York (1948)
Dora Maar wasn't just a 'muse' (thank goodness) but an artist in her own right. She was as happy to objectify the male figure as Picasso was hers. You only need look at her eroticised rendering of Alberto Spaolini. George Platt Lynes made the most of Art Deco flourishes in his homoerotic fashion photography while the Viennese Rudolf Koppitz and Czech Drtrikol were more content artfully rendering naked female bodies. Yet Edward Steichen's lace clad Gloria Swanson is the sexiest of them all. The Sunset Boulevard star manages to look demure, alluring, and a bit terrifying at the same time.

Dora Maar - The Dancer Alberto Spaolini (1935)

Rudolf Koppitz - Movement Study (1925)

Frantisek Drtikol - Untitled (Nude with Wave Construction) (1925)

George Platt Lymes - A Forgotten Model (1937)

Edward Steichen - Gloria Swanson, New York (1924)
Portraiture and experimentation were far from separate areas of practice. Photographers were harnessing techniques that may have previously been considered 'mistakes'. Distortion and scratching for example. Curved lenses were used. Patterned glass too. Some went as far to melt the negative to achieve their desired effect.

It would appear that Max Ernst was an artist only too happy to pose for these modern, often unflattering, portraits. Man Ray's 1938 photo of him looks like it could be an advert for a spy film. It seems to belong at least three decades later.

Man Ray - Glass Tears (1932)

Man Ray - Max Ernst (1938)

Frederick Sommer - Max Ernst (1938)

German Surrealist Josef Breitenbach pushed the enveloped back even further with a cut up technique still being aped, often with inferior results, today, Weston's nude has the sinuous form of a Matisse, and Ferenc Csik's divers celebrated human athleticism in a way that has worrying overtones of the Aryan suprematism being expounded by the Nazis not far from Csik's native Hungary at the same time.

Josef Breitenbach - Forever and Ever, Paris (1938)

Edward Weston - Nude (1936)

Ferenc Csik - Diver (1936)
Europe was troubled and America was too. As John Steinbeck wrote about the Great Depression and the dustbowl, and Woody Guthrie sang about it, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, most famously of all, froze the images of those who lived it into our mind for eternity. Lange's Migrant Mother is one of the most celebrated of all photographs and its power remains undimmed yet The Damage Is Already Done, from the same year, is perhaps more powerful still. An innocent face corrupted, possibly beyond repair, by the degradation she's seen and been subjected to. This is documentary photography at its very best.

Walker Evans - Bud Fields, Alabama Tenant Farmer (1936)

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother (1936)

Dorothea Lange - The Damage is Already Done, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936)
Elsewhere in the US Helen Levitt took snapshots of everyday life in the Big Apple and Evans did the same for the Big Easy. The torn Greta Garbo poster that Ilse Bing saw in Paris predates Mimmo Rotella's psychogeographical decollages by twenty or so years. All these works must've looked amazing when they were first made but history has added a depth to them that possibly the artists themselves could not've been aware of (though the child in Levitt's 1939 New York doesn't look so different to children these days, and why should she?).

Helen Levitt - New York (1939)

Ilse Bing - Greta Garbo Poster, Paris (1932)

Walker Evans - New Orleans, Louisiana (Street Corner) (1936)
The final room is cumbersomely titled 'Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions' and it doubles down on some of the themes that the previous rooms have nodded towards. Edward Weston must be second only to Man Ray in Elton's collection and I will confess a preference for his artfully shadowed church door over his painfully engorged phallic gourd.
Kertesz's distorted clocks belong in Surrealism, Bourke-White's George Washington Bridge and Toni Schneider's Rail Spider mine psychogeographical landscape territory further, and Herbert List seems to be celebrating the lives of the nouveau riche. Photography, now a fully grown up art form, was pushing out in all directions and the harder it was to get to grips with where it was heading the more interesting that journey became.

Edward Weston - Gourd (1927)

Edward Weston - Church Door - Hornitos (1940)

Dorothy Norman - Rockerfeller Center Church IX (1930s)

Andre Kertesz - Clock Distortion (1938)

Herbert List - Lake Lucerne, Switzerland (1938)

Toni Schneiders - Rail Spider, Hamburg-Altona (1950)

Margaret Bourke-White - George Washington Bridge (1933)

Alexsandr Rodchenko/Varvara Stepanova - Be Ready (1934)
Rodchenko and Stepanova's Be Ready is the only work in the show to contain any colour. It sits uneasily amongst the others yet you can see why Elton felt he needed this masterpiece of Russian modernism in his collection. It's quite beautiful.
As the bankers wander silently across New York, as a solitary figure hovers at the bottom of a Pennsylvania staircase, and as Imogen Cunningham's gas tanks once again loom large over us small, seemingly insignificant human beings, photography is revealed to be, at heart, a lonely pastime that catches people, or even buildings, in often unguarded moments. It aims to say something about us, about our souls, and occasionally it succeedss. Other times the mirror we look into returns a stare as blank as Man Ray's Ostrich Egg. We think we know others. We think we know ourselves. Photography reveals just how much we really do - and just how much we really don't.
I'm jealous of Elton John having this collection in his house, or one of his houses, and I'm glad he shared it. I also thank Owen for taking me along to this the first time. It was, as ever, an education.

Paul Strand - Wall Street, New York (1915)

Lloyd Ullberg - Philadelphia (1935)

Imogen Cunningham - Gas Tanks (1927)

Man Ray - Ostrich Egg (1944)