One thing being a rock star gets you is an apartment the size of the Pentagon. O.K., not the Pentagon. Elton John's place in Atlanta is only 18,000 sq. ft., about the size of everything you and all your friends live in put together. But that's still a lot of wall space, which you need if you're Elton John. Ten years ago, around the time he established his U.S. foothold in Atlanta (he also has houses in London and Nice and one of those rolling country estates in Old Windsor, England), Sir Elton, as he is properly called, also discovered photographs. Several million dollars and much shopping later, he has one of the larger private collections in the world.
One other thing stardom gets you is a genuine art-world institution to show your little treasures, or 380 of them, which is what the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is doing with John's photographs, until Jan. 28. However much exhibits like this may be a public service, they are also a venerable form of donor courtship. It's fair to say that the trustees of the High wouldn't mind if Sir Elton were to will them every bit of this collection someday. (They must hold their breath every time he tells the press how much he would love to see a photography museum established in London.) But if they covet his holdings, who can blame them? This is a collection few museums could just go out and buy. Auction and gallery prices for photos have been rising steeply, in part because of buyers like John. Seven years ago, he bid up the price of Glass Tears, Man Ray's landmark caprice from 1932, to $190,000, then a record for any photograph bought at auction. His collection is more than 2,000 prints and climbing. And it's not bad.
Scratch a collector, and you find a pack rat who likes to play librarian. As a teenager Elton bought rock records extravagantly, then organized them with Prussian efficiency, filing them by record label and catalog number. With early stardom he loaded up on the usual blunder acquisitions of new-money collectors. (What was it exactly that baby boomers saw in Art Nouveau posters and Tiffany lamps?) Most of that he sold off some years ago in the mental and physical housecleaning that accompanied his decision to stop drinking. Then he went to lunch in France, somebody showed him some prints by Horst, and he was off and running.
Like most collections, this one amounts to a fan's notes, not an encyclopedic survey. It contains almost nothing from the 19th century, and the 20th century inventory is light on landscape and street photography, heavy on fashion and portraiture. But it's a highly credible assortment, brainy and fun, with samples from most of the major episodes of 20th century photography. There's a fair selection of greatest hits — Edward Steichen's 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a scrim of black lace, Dorothea Lange's inevitable Migrant Mother of 1936 — and some less familiar examples by big names. Everybody has seen Edward Weston's nudes, but probably not the one here, from 1927, which turns a pair of legs, tightly folded at the knees, into nestled loaves of Italian bread.
With a collection this big, you get to compare iconic shots like George Hoyningen-Huene's Seated Divers from around 1930 — a man and woman seated at the end of a diving board, backs turned to us and peering out at a painted-backdrop sea — with instant classics like one of Rineke Dijkstra's hypnotic pictures of single figures standing upright against the horizon at real beaches around northern Europe. The Hoyningen-Huene is one of the psychic landmarks of fashion photography, a picture in which the clothes matter less than the canny mood, both aerodynamic and dreamy. Dijkstra's shot of a girl presenting herself in the grave light of the North Sea, called simply Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992, has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with how a teenage body can be spindly and awkwardly canted but still have the celestial bearing, the beckoning power of a Renaissance Virgin.
Even if you didn't know that John started buying pictures after he stopped drinking, you might figure it out from the pictures. They suggest the mental climate of a man cleaning up his act. The old John was a circus clown shot out of his own cannon, so you'd expect his collection to have more of the orangutan behavior and chili-pepper colors you get from, say, David La Chappelle, the celebrity photographer who pinwheeled around John three years ago. You do find some of that in the Polaroid self-portraits Lucas Samaras made in the 1970s, when he used to develop the picture, then scribble over it until his face and form became tangled in a vortex of melting candy colors. You find it again in the flagrant comedies of Tracey Moffatt's Something More series, scenes staged for the camera, where bored babes get very fed up with Nowheresville, Australia. At the High's satellite galleries at the Georgia-Pacific Center, where there's a separate show devoted to Elton's celebrity portraits, you see it once more in the shot Andy Warhol took of himself in drag, a Halloween-in-Greenwich Village version of Joan Crawford. Actually, he looks pretty good.
But the prevailing climate of this collection is one of spare, sharp lines, big graphics and crisp edges. John loves Irving Penn, whose work looks clean and sober even when his subject was a New Guinea tribesman caked in ceremonial mud. He loves Robert Mapplethorpe, but without the whips and chains, which means the Mapplethorpe of laser-cut male torsos and tulips that loom before you like stage-lit pachyderms. These pictures were not collected by the inebriated stage floozy we used to know and love. They bear the mark of the studious Sir Elton John, a man buying things in the cold light of the morning after. Even the sex here is stately. Don't look for anything hairy or louche. It's mostly neatly muscled male torsos by Horst, Mapplethorpe or Herb Ritts. The models have abs more tightly organized than Elton's old record collection. Their nipples are neat as a pin.
What's unbuckled, in places, is the melancholy, which may be the emotional default mode of a man who has buried good friends — Gianni Versace, Princess Diana — and lost others to aids. The Elton John who wrote Daniel, with its baffled yearning, is the one who loves the blue-tinted male nudes of John Dugdale, with their Victorian grief. The somber undercurrent is plain even in Andres Serrano's vivid crimson circle in a rectangle of bright yellow, which on closer inspection turns out to be a pool of blood.
This show does have its one passage of starstruck pornography, meaning the small gallery designed to resemble a corner of John's living room, with furniture, knickknacks and all. (Ooh! Ah! Hmmm.) Someday John will write one of those obligatory star memoirs, the kind in which he won't be able to decide whether to remember his wild youth or forget it. ("Let's see, was I Pee-wee Herman or Mother Teresa?") Skip the book. The pictures he has bought may give us the best picture of him we are ever likely to get.