Issue #268  7/8/2024
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Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection Runs until January 5, 2025 at the V&A Museum in London

By Michael Diemar

Installation image of 'Fragile Beauty' at V&A South Kensington. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Installation image of 'Fragile Beauty' at V&A South Kensington. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

While loans from the collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish have appeared in several exhibitions over the years, "Fragile Beauty" is the second major show based on it. The first one, though the collection was credited to John alone, "The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection", was shown at Tate Modern in 2016. It covered the period 1920-1950, was very impressive and also made clear the seriousness and passion with which John applied to his collection. Among the works were Lászlo Moholy-Nagy’s vertical view of the courtyard beneath the Berlin Radio Tower, Edward Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson and Man Ray's Glass Tears, the latter bought at Sotheby's in 1993 for £122 500, then the highest price paid for a photograph at auction.

"Fragile Beauty", curated by Duncan Forbes, Director of Photography at the V&A, covers the period from 1950 until the present day, and has a much wider scope, the works divided into sections named Fashion, Stars of stage, screen and studio, Desire, The American Scene, Reportage, Constructed images, Towards abstraction and Collecting Now. It's also an exhibition of extremes, ranging from Norman Parkinson's portrait of Miss Piggy from The Muppets to Richard Drew's The Falling Man, taken on 9/11.

John chose the title of the exhibition, a reference to how vulnerability can inspire creativity, and how the camera can capture those moments in time. By his own admission, John started collecting photography "as a much healthier addiction", after leaving rehab for cocaine use in 1990. The first room reveals that in one respect, John and Furnish followed the path of many other new collectors, starting out by focusing on famous images by leading photographers, Richard Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants" and "Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent", Melvin Sokolsky's "Bubble Shoot" fashion images, Irving Penn's "Harlequin Dress", and Herb Ritts' "Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage". They’re wonderful images but also very familiar.

David LaChapelle, Elton John: Egg On His Face, New York, 1999. © David LaChapelle.
David LaChapelle, Elton John: Egg On His Face, New York, 1999. © David LaChapelle.

While John loves photography, he hates images of himself. Still, Forbes convinced him to include two images, the first one, a close-up of his hands, his watch and jewelry, taken by Mario Testino, the second, by David LaChapelle, with boiled eggs covering his eyes. The latter appears in the second section, Stars of stage, screen and studio. While it includes many familiar images, of Marlon Brando, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, there are also many surprises, such as a self-portrait by Susan Meiselas, taken at a boarding house in Massachusetts in 1971, a double exposure, where she appears ghostlike, sitting in a chair.

Included are three images of Marilyn Monroe: Avedon's 1957 portrait, Eve Arnold's portrait of her on the set of "The Misfits", and one from Bert Stern's "The Last Sitting".

John has been fascinated by Monroe since his teens, and later began to identify with her, comparing his ability to turn on his exuberant persona to Monroe's carefully acted manufactured public image. In 1973, he released "Goodbye Yellow Road", which included "Candle in the Wind", the first line naming Norma Jean, reworking the song in 1997 for Lady Di's funeral.

Eve Arnold, Marilyn Monroe in the Nevada desert going over her lines for a difficult scene she is about to play with Clark GABLE in the film "The Misfits". 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos.
Eve Arnold, Marilyn Monroe in the Nevada desert going over her lines for a difficult scene she is about to play with Clark GABLE in the film "The Misfits". 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos.

When I met Eve Arnold in the late 90s she told me about of the image of the pensive-looking star, "Marilyn and I were surrounded by men on the set of "The Misfits", I guess that was why we bonded so quickly. There was a trust between us. I don’t think she was aware that I took that picture."

The section called "Desire", is devoted to men, nude or semi-nude. There are great images here, by Herbert List and George Platt Lynes, and four images from Peter Hujar’s 1966 series "Nude Self-Portraits". The larger images, like the Herb Ritts image "Tyres", a best-selling poster in the 1980s, rather spoil the overall impression, turning the section into voyeurism. The lesser-known images, like the arm of a Japanese builder by Tamotsu Yato, are far more subtle, and therefore effective.

Duncan Forbes notes that John and Furnish have a great curiosity and it extends into reportage, the subject of the next section. Famous as many of these images are, they have lost none their power; the murder of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel, Jeffrey Miller lying on the ground, one of the four killed at Kent State in 1970, and the aforementioned "The Falling Man". But there also some real surprises here, images taken in 1989 by Ai Weiwei, during his ten-year stay in the city, of protesting doctors at an AIDS parade in New York, demanding better care for AIDS patients.

The American Scene section has some wonderful images, by Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, William Eggleston, Ray Metzker, Harry Callahan, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and others. There's also a real-photo postcard by Diane Arbus, "Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ", sent to Walker Evans in 1967, urging him to see the "New Documents" exhibition at MoMA, "And if there is a print you want, tell me so I can give it to you." Some of the images here are reminders that John had a home in Atlanta for some 30 years and purchased a large group of images of the South, including Sally Mann's "Deep South, Untitled (Little House)".

The exhibition is in part dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, both of immense significance to John and Furnish. The photographers were outsiders, felt like freaks in suburbia and escaped to New York. The "Fragile Beauty" section includes Alec Soth's image of Goldin's bed in Brooklyn. Above it hangs two framed photographs by Peter Hujar, who died from AIDS in 1987, and only much later gained the recognition he deserved. His images came out of his life in the New York underground. Seen here is his 1975 portrait of Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars, on her deathbed, beautiful, dignified and unflinching.

"Thanksgiving" installation by Nan Goldin. Photo by Michael Diemar.
"Thanksgiving" installation by Nan Goldin. Photo by Michael Diemar.

Nan Goldin is herself represented with "Thanksgiving", the high point of the exhibition: 149 images spanning the years 1973–1999, a diary of the lives of her and her friends, images of happiness, abuse, death, sex and despair, both shocking and compelling. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, John states that he bought "Thanksgiving" in 1999 because the images reminded him of his own life: "I don’t think I’ve been moved by anything as much as when I saw that". Here, the installation has been given its own structure within the room, almost like a shrine. Mapplethorpe is represented by several images, including "Poppy", and his self-portrait with horns, the latter reminding me of a quote from him, "Beauty and the devil are the same thing."

Cindy Sherman is almost a given in the "Constructed Images" section. Masculinity is put to the test in Sam Taylor-Wood’s series "Crying Men". She got the idea at a dinner party, when a fellow guest stated, "Women cry and men get angry." She then decided to photograph men in their most vulnerable state. She invited Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whitacre, Ed Harris, Daniel Craig and half a dozen others, to dig into themselves for her camera. The question is, of course, if their tears can be believed. All are actors, trained to emote on command.

But there are real surprises here as well, such as "Priceless" (2004), by Hank William Thomas. The work questions society's obsession with consumerism, by applying the trappings of a Mastercard advert to a photograph of his grieving family at the funeral of his cousin, Songha Willis, who was murdered at an armed robbery.

Adam Fuss, Zachary, 2011. © Adam Fuss. Courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco, CA.
Adam Fuss, Zachary, 2011. © Adam Fuss. Courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco, CA.

There were impressive works in the "Towards Abstraction" section, by Niko Luoma, Wolfgang Tillmans and Adam Fuss, a master of camera-less photography, here represented by images of Furnish and John's sons, Zachary and Elijah, swimming in a pool.

The exhibition ends with some recent acquisitions, including a mixed-media work by Wardell Milan, which imagines places where African-American people can act and think freely, and An-My Lê’s "Fragment IX: Jefferson Davis Monument, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, LA", from the series "Silent General", one of the statues removed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As stated, this is an exhibition of extremes. I decided to take a long break before I headed back in for a second round, carefully selecting which works to see again.

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.