Glamour and grit collide in London show featuring Elton John’s photo collection


By AGENCY

Julio Cortez’s 2020 photo of a protester with an upside-down American flag amid unrest in Minneapolis. The photograph is part of the 'Fragile Beauty' exhibition, featuring Elton John’s photo collection, in London. Photo: AP

A new exhibition of photographs owned by Elton John is everything one might expect from a star who has a fascination with image, a love of excess and a very large budget. Understated, it isn’t.

The show, which opened last weekend at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, includes more than 300 pieces by 140 photographers selected from the vast collection of John and his partner David Furnish.

Covering the period from 1950 to the present day, they include iconic fashion shots by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, portraits of stars including The Beatles, Frank Sinatra Marilyn Monroe and Chet Baker, and photojournalism capturing moments in history, from the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s to 1980s AIDS activism and the Sept 11 attacks.

Newell Harbin, director of the couple’s collection, agreed that the sheer scale of the show is “a lot.”

'Elton John: Egg On His Face', photographed by David LaChapelle in New York in 1999. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum 'Elton John: Egg On His Face', photographed by David LaChapelle in New York in 1999. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum

“It’s a little bit overwhelming sometimes, but it’s just wonderful,” she said at a preview last Wednesday.

The exhibition is entitled Fragile Beauty, a name chosen by John that reflects his ethos, said curator Duncan Forbes, the museum’s head of photography.

“I think key to Elton is the sense of vulnerability and fragility that underpins creative expression and human experience,” said Forbes. “That’s the thing I think runs through the show.”

He said John had instructed that the exhibition “should be mischievous and it should be very serious.”

“What we’ve tried to do is create a really absorbing, big show about photography, but also relate it to who they are (and) the passions of the collectors,” said Forbes.

An image of jazz musician Chet Baker, taken by Herman Leonard, in New York in 1956. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum An image of jazz musician Chet Baker, taken by Herman Leonard, in New York in 1956. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum

The exhibition opens with elegant fashion photos from the 1950s, then gets into edgier territory with work by chroniclers of outcasts and rebels such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, both artists John has collected extensively.

Many of the greats from seven decades of photography are represented, from Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson and Robert Franck to Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman and Ai Weiwei. There are several works by Associated Pres photographers, including Richard Drew’s haunting Falling Man image from 9/11 and Julio Cortez’s 2020 photo of a protester with an upside-down American flag amid unrest in Minneapolis.

John, now 77, began collecting photographs after getting sober in the 1990s – he later said he replaced alcohol with “a much healthier addiction.”

He and 61-year-old Furnish have assembled one of the largest photo collections in private hands, amounting to more than 7,000 works.

Photographer Richard Drew is greeted by Elton John at the opening of a new exhibition of photographs owned by John at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last week. Photo: APPhotographer Richard Drew is greeted by Elton John at the opening of a new exhibition of photographs owned by John at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last week. Photo: AP

They frequently loan photos for exhibitions, including some 200 for a Tate Modern show in 2016 that focused on black-and-white photographs from the early decades of the medium.

Harbin said John and Furnish “collect from the heart.”

“They collect what speaks to them,” she said – and continue to acquire new works, though they have slowed down a little. The most recent piece in the exhibition was bought two months ago.

Many of the works are displayed in an often-changing lineup on the walls of their multiple homes. Harbin said the household had a running joke in Atlanta, where John had a home for many years, “that no one ever knew the true color of the wallpaper.”

“I had it frame- to-frame, and that’s how he wanted it done – so that the two of them could be engulfed in that creativity and that genius of these other artists,” she said.

Fragile Beauty runs at the V&A until Jan 5, 2025. — AP

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