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'Chorus of Light'
Elton John shares his world-class photo collection
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It was about 1991, and Elton John, out of rehab and suddenly sober from his party days of drugs and drink, was, as he puts it, beginning to see things with a new pair of eyes.
That new vision would change the course of his life, and awaken a passion for photography.
Now, nearly a decade after his epiphany, the British singer-musician-songwriter has opened the cream of his 2,500-plus treasure trove of images to the public -- 387 masterpieces by more than 100 photographers of the 20th century -- in a blockbuster exhibition.
"Chorus of Light: Photographs from the Sir Elton John Collection" opens Saturday at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
As John tells it, he had been oblivious to the art of photography until a visit to France.
He was having lunch with friends in the South of France when photography dealer David Fahey opened his portfolio to show him works from several 20th-century photographers -- Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, Horst P. Horst.
After John's first glimpse of those images, the defining moment struck. He was smitten, and a great collector -- and collection -- were born.
"Those images I saw were so beautiful and timeless and exquisite," John told an audience in a packed Atlanta Symphony Hall last week, recalling the moment.
The pictures on display range from mural-sized color works by Andres Serrano to John's favorite piece, a 1 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch contact print from 1917, "Underwater Swimmer, Hungary" by Andre Kertesz.
"There's something about a tiny image," John says. "It makes us look farther into the photograph."
Another of his favorites is "Nude," the 1927 image by Edward Weston that shows only bended legs.
Architectural and industrial images, such as Margaret Bourke-White's 1930 "Chrysler Building Spire" also appeal to him, he says. And he has a special place in his heart for Man Ray's "Glass Tears (Les Larmes)" 1932.
Nothing but the best
With his means, John could purchase the best, and as he did, his interest and knowledge soared. He has 900 photographs at his sprawling, two-story condominium in Atlanta, which has become his American hometown. The others reside at his homes in England and France.
The images on exhibit include photojournalism icons, such as Dorthea Lange's 1936 image of an anxious migrant mother, her hand lightly touching a face furrowed in worry. In the exhibition catalog, that picture is paired with a 1962 Bert Stern image of Marilyn Monroe, a glamorous but telling mirror image of thoughtfulness -- or loneliness.
Many of the photographs illuminate a celebrity without showing a face at all. A triptych of Miles Davis' hands by Irving Penn (1986) is juxtaposed against Herman Leonard's 1956 portrait of Chet Baker, hiding behind his trumpet.
A gift to Atlanta
The exhibition, which runs through January 28, and will only be shown in Atlanta, has been years in the making. It started out as an offer from John to then-High Museum Curator Ned Rifkin (now director of the Menil Collection in Houston) in the months before Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics.
John told Rifkin he would be out of town for the games, and offered to open his 18,000-square-foot condo on Peachtree Street to show his photographs to special visitors to the games. Rifkin, already committed to blockbuster exhibits for the Olympics, gamely took a rain check, now being cashed in.
The exhibit's managing curator, High Museum Photography Curator Thomas Southall, says, "I think Elton saw this as a great opportunity to give back to the city of Atlanta that he had found so welcoming."
"One of the things that I think really distinguishes Elton's collection is that it's a passionate collection," Southall said. "It isn't trying to make some sort of argument about what art is or should be. It's eclectic."
"We're very excited by the fact that we're going to be exposing the great art of photography to thousands of Elton John fans who have never heard of Man Ray or Edward Weston or Alfred Stieglitz or any of those great 20th-century masters that are here," he says.
Atlanta photography dealer Jane Jackson, owner of Jackson Fine Art, has been a kind of mentor to John's collecting passion. She was sick in bed with the flu on New Year's Eve in 1991 when John's interior designer, Fred Dilger, called to ask if she could open the gallery for his client.
"So I did," Jackson says. "I jumped out of bed and headed over to the gallery. I have to say it was not one of those moments you forget."
John purchased a few photographs that day by Elliot Erwitt and Edward Curtis, but also left with a stack of photography books.
When he returned the next time, Jackson discovered that John had actually read the books. He knew a lot more than he did on his first visit.
"When people see this exhibit, they will see what he's accomplished," Jackson says. "For most people, this would be a full-time job."
Jackson says as John has learned more, he has become more particular in terms of what he's collecting, whether it's a rare, modernist piece or a contemporary artist.
She says "Chorus of Light" is a good representation of his collection. "That was one of the criteria -- that we needed to represent his collection to the fullest."
Inspired by other artists
"Every morning, I walk through my apartment and feel I'm so lucky to be surrounded by all these photographs," John says. "Although he makes no photographs of his own, he says he is inspired by other artists' work."
"I'm fascinated by that sense of discovery, the way photographers find different ways of looking at the world."
He especially admires photographer and friend Nan Goldin, whose unframed color work in "Chorus of Light" reflects the kind of gritty realism that led Goldin into rehab more than 10 years ago.
After the deal was struck to mount the exhibit, it was clear that the undertaking would be a massive one.
Atlanta photographer Charlie McCullers was hired to make photographic copies of images destined for the show before they were moved out of John's condo, an intricate and labor-intensive process that involved setting up a camera and lights, removing the prints from their elaborate frames, shooting them and reframing the images.
McCullers also photographed the collection in context as it hung in John's apartment, showing how a collector at the pinnacle of his passion arranges images on sweeping walls, in nooks and crannies, on closet doors and even in bathrooms.
A photography museum in England?
John has joked with exhibition organizers that he's so attached to his pictures that he feared he would have to sleep in the museum as long as the photographs were there.
Jackson says the exhibition is a great gift to the city of Atlanta. "I know that Elton is happy it's here."
John already has taken steps to spread his appreciation of photography.
Proceeds from "Chorus of Light" will be used to establish the "Sir Elton John Photography Acquisition Fund" for the High's own collection.
John wants England to build a museum devoted solely to photography. He indicates that while he hasn't made a firm decision, he would like to leave his collection to such a place.
"I have no heir to leave them to, and I would like the public to enjoy them," John says. "I'd like a building to show the whole lot."
Deb Krajnak, CNN.com Arts and Style editor, contributed to this report.
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