Sir Elton John and David Furnish Talk Us Through Their Upcoming V&A Exhibition, ‘Fragile Beauty’

“There was a gallery in Atlanta headed by Jane Jackson and she very much became his teacher,” Furnish said earlier this year. “He voraciously became a student of photography and really educated himself about its history.”

“I first had a 2,500-square-feet apartment,” says Elton. “But the more I collected photography and ran out of space, I had to buy the ones next door.” His Atlanta condo (where he and David lived intermittently for more than three decades) ultimately ended up being six separate, adjacent apartments, all connected.

To give an idea of the collection’s sensibility, much of the contents from Elton’s Atlanta apartment were auctioned at Christie’s in New York in February following its sale. Titled Goodbye Peachtree Roadthe landmark sale followed celebrity auctions by Freddie Mercury, André Leon TalleyGeorge Michael and David Bowie. By giving collectors and fans the chance to own something Elton-approved, it’s no wonder that the auction was a huge success, raising £16 million.

An abundance of lots were available with truly something for everyone – if maximalist design, nude prints, designer clothing and celebrity portraits are your thing. Some key themes: vintage photographs (George Platt Lynes, Imogen Cunningham, Brassaï), male nudes (Bruce Weber, Jack Pierson, Andy Warhol), celebrity portraits (Lord Snowdon, David Bailey), religion- inspired jewellery (Cartier, Chopard, Yohji Yamamoto), fashion imagery (Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts, Horst P. Horst, David Bailey, William Klein) and contemporary British art (Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Derek Jarman, Damien Hirst).

A whole auction was solely dedicated to his collection of Versace clothing and homewares, born from Elton’s close relationship with the late Gianni Versace. Notable highlights include rare day-glo paintings by artist and Aids activist Keith HaringLouis XIV-style fancy dress costumes worn at Elton’s famed 50th birthday party, Ryan McGinley’s X-rated image of a snake coiling around a penis and a rare purple neon sculpture by David LaChapelle which reads ‘HORNY?!’.

Common practice with such sales is for the auction house to advertise deceivingly low estimates to entice bidders into thinking they might get a bargain (the LaChapelle was estimated at just under £800; it brought in £26,650) – most items achieved significantly higher hammer prices in the end.

Photography from their collection had already been displayed in The Radical Eyea major exhibition at Tate Modern which ran from November 2016 to May 2017. The show focused on works by early modernist photography pioneers – ranging from Bauhaus abstraction and surrealism to early queer portraits and 1930s social documentary – including Edward Steichen, László Moholy-Nagy, Brassaï, Dorothea Lange, André Kertész and Man Ray.

It was critically acclaimed, with the Times saying, “He’s definitely got one. An eye, that is. Radical or not, it’s bloody good. This exhibition provides a perfect beginner’s primer in the themes, core values and great practitioners of modernist photography.” Audiences flocked to the Tate’s shows that year: a million more visitors visited in 2016 compared to 2015. But how is this upcoming exhibition different?

“We just decided to pick up where the Tate show left off,” says Forbes. “We cover photographs from the 1950s until the present. The show is much broader and more contemporary. We’re even including things that Elton and David have purchased in the last couple of years.”

The couple are generous patrons of the V&A. In 2014, they loaned works by fashion photographer Horst P. Horst to the gallery. Then, in 2019, financial donations led to the institution’s new photography centre being named in their honour. Fragile Beauty was born from a mutual conversation between them, the museum curators and Newell Harbin, director of their collection. “We sat down at Elton’s kitchen table in Atlanta and began to put the show together,” says Forbes.

Themes include fashion, where their collecting began, extending from Elton’s interest in style through his own musical performances in the ’70s and ’80s. On view will be images by photographers ranging from Irving Penn, Frances McLaughlin-Gill (Vogue’s first female fashion photographer), Richard Avedon and Guy Bourdin to Helmut Newton, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Tina Barney and Harley Weir.

“The show moves on to the stars (of) stage, screen and studio,” continues Forbes. “Perhaps (because of) reflecting their own lives in starlight, John and Furnish are interested in images of musicians and Hollywood actors. It’s a really fun, fabulous collection of photographs.”

Other sections like ‘Desire’ indicate the couple’s passion for images of the male form, bringing homoerotic and queer photography; another on reportage is grounded in the civil rights era, with the 1960s being a formative period in Elton’s life, and continues with present-day news images. “Both Elton and David are very passionate about photojournalism,” says Forbes. “Elton sits there on his iPad and picks out contemporary press photographs that he feels are important and significant, then asks his curator to hunt them down… which can be difficult as there’s no culture of printmaking among many contemporary photojournalists.”

‘Fragile Beauty’ (the section from which the show takes its title) includes works by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin. It looks at people who were part of the bohemian culture in New York in the ’70s and ’80s and includes figures like Peter Hujar, who were connected with places like Warhol’s studio The Factory. Remarking on Hujar – soon to be portrayed by Ben Whishaw in a biopic directed by indie filmmaker Ira Sachs – Elton once said, “his humanity, depth and sensual insights aren’t for everyone, and don’t need to be, but once his pictures get into your bloodstream they are impossible to shake”. With many similar works on view to the public for the first time, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this show causes a new generation to feel the same way.

Forbes describes how Elton is particularly passionate about Nan Goldin’s installation Thanksgiving. “Although it’s one artwork, it comprises 149 different prints. We’re going to build a room in the show to display them,” he tells us. “It’s a narrative of nightlife from the 1970s to the 1990s. It’s incredibly moving because a lot of the people in those images are now deceased (many of Goldin’s subjects died during the Aids pandemic). I think that for Goldin the work functions as an act of love towards the people she photographed.”

Other sections include ‘Constructed Images’, which looks at big bold photography from the 1980s, when printmaking got bigger and more colourful, echoing the growth of the advertising and music industries. Jazz images by William Claxton and Herman Leonard are also on view; Forbes mentions how Elton is “obsessed with Chet Baker” – a whole series of images of the American jazz singer and trumpeter will be displayed.

Acknowledging that it is “predominantly a show of classics”, Forbes mentions that contemporary names like Tyler Mitchell are of great importance to Elton. Mitchell famously captured Beyoncé in a white Gucci wedding dress, topped by a maximalist floral headdress by Phil John Perry, for Vogue. Since then he has made his name as an artist, with shows at Gagosian while also shooting campaigns for Ferragamo and JW Anderson. His powerfully tender image of a beetle resting on the face of a young boy (see previous spread) will be shown.

Another photographer straddling fashion and art, Ryan McGinley, whose works capture the freedom and hedonism of youth, is included. The show also presents lesser-known names like Vietnamese artist An-My Lê, whose work reckons with war and violent combat, and Trevor Paglen, whose practice tackles digital secrecy and mass surveillance.

On what viewers can expect, Forbes says, “it’s mischievous, quite playful. There’s a lot of very hard-hitting, quite serious photography, but we’ve tried to retain a playful tone. It’s playful yet serious, which reflects Elton’s character.” I ask if the show might encourage audiences to start playing with building their own collections and Forbes agrees – photography can be the most accessible way to start buying art. This might sound difficult when you don’t have a pop star’s budget but Elton advises wannabe collectors to not to seek only objects that are expensive or fashionable.

“I hate trophy art,” he told Jane Jackson, art dealer and previous director of his collection. “I buy what I like and if it’s not fashionable I don’t care. The more you collect, the more sophisticated your eye becomes. I’d rather walk into a house that’s full of mediocre stuff, but the owners love it and they’ve bought it themselves, than see trophy art on the wall.



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