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Elton John on V&A exhibition: ‘I collect photos but hate ones of myself’

Sir Elton John has said that even though he collects photographs, he “hates” ones of himself.

The singer was speaking exclusively to BBC News ahead of the launch of a V&A exhibition of photographs from his and his husband David Furnish’s collection.

More than 300 prints from more than 140 photographers are on show in Fragile Beauty.

But Sir Elton said: “I would never put myself up on the wall [at home], no thank you.”

The exhibition spans from the 1950s to the present day and includes portraits of jazz musicians Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and actress Marilyn Monroe.

Getty Images David Furnish and Sir Elton John with their sons, Elijah and Zachary at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party in 2015Getty Images
David Furnish and Sir Elton John with their sons, Elijah and Zachary at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party in 2015

But what’s notably absent is any images of Sir Elton himself while performing.

“It’s extraordinary that I collect photographs because I don’t like being photographed,” the 77-year-old singer said. “I find it really painful.”

Sir Elton said that he also doesn’t like taking photographs, despite his passion for the art form.

“The paradox of someone who appreciates and has a sophisticated eye for photographs yet cannot stand to be photographed is not lost on me,” Furnish said with a laugh.

“I think what keeps Elton sane is the fact he’s able to compartmentalise what he does on stage as a performer versus who he is in his everyday life.”

Tyler Mitchell Tyler Mitchell, Simply Fragile, 2022Tyler Mitchell
Elton John and David Furnish have championed young artists — including this one “Simply Fragile”, 2022 by Tyler Mitchell, which the singer says is “fabulous and funny”

The exhibition follows their 2016 show from Sir Elton and Furnish’s collection at the Tate Modern, which covered the period from 1920 to 1950.

It features historic moments from the civil rights movement to Aids activism, and includes works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Ai Weiwei and others. The majority of the photographs are being displayed to the public for the first time.

Sir Elton said he was “absolutely blown away” to see the items on the walls.

“We’ve collected these photographs over many years, and some of them I’d forgotten we had, because you buy photographs and they go straight into storage,” he said.

Cindy Sherman/Hauser & Wirth Gallery Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #17, 1978Cindy Sherman/Hauser & Wirth Gallery
Untitled Film Still #17, 1978 by Cindy Sherman, who David Furnish says shows “what women have to become, the roles they have to play”
Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos Eve Arnold, Malcolm X, Chicago, Illinois, USA, 1962Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Figures from the US Civil Rights movement including Malcolm X, taken by Eve Arnold in Chicago in 1962, feature strongly in the collection

“And a lot of them I haven’t seen hung properly or hung at all. And so walking through, it’s been hung so beautifully and the different sections and wall colours. I couldn’t be happier. I’m just astonished by what we’ve collected and so proud of what we’ve collected because we both love photography so much.”

Sir Elton said that there was also “a lot of pain and grief” on the walls, including images from the events of 11 September 2001.

“This is the first time I’ve ever shown our 9/11 photographs,” he said. “Every time we get them out we think, is it going to be OK to show them, is it too raw?”

Of the 2,000 images of 9/11 they own, they are exhibiting just four. Sir Elton insisted it was important to collect images of that pain.

“The image of the man falling vertically from the World Trade Centre is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen and yet it’s one of the most tragic,” he said.

“And sometimes in tragic images, whether it’s paintings or photographs, there’s a lot of beauty. And that’s why the show’s called Fragile Beauty, because there’s beauty in everything.”

 Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Poppy by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Poppy,1988, is a metaphor for a brief and fragile beauty

The collection also includes photographs of the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.

Sir Elton it was important to “keep a record” of events like that, which are historic.

“We live in an age now where people seem to want to rewrite history and want to deny truth,” added Furnish. “I think when things are captured photographically, it’s irrevocable. It really locks it in time.”

Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Self portrait, 1985 by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS

Sir Elton said he never noticed photography “until I got sober in 1990”.

“I’d had my photograph taken by all the top photographers, mostly anyway, but I never considered photography as an art form,” he said.

But after he became sober, he was in the South of France and got hooked when he saw a friend buying photographs. “I went, ‘oh, these are so beautiful’. And I noticed the art form for the first time. And so from that time, I was bitten, and investigated and read and collected… and bought a lot.”

A shared love of photography also helped the pair connect when they first met, said Furnish.

Nan Goldin/Gagosian Gallery Nan Goldin, Jimmy Paulette and Taboo! In the Bathroom, 1991Nan Goldin/Gagosian Gallery
Jimmy Paulette and Taboo! In the Bathroom, 1991 by Nan Goldin, who Elton John and David Furnish say captured a big part of what the singer’s life was like in the 1980s

“The night we met at Elton’s house in Windsor, the thing that we bonded over was photography,” he said. “By the end of the night I felt something very special, and I think [he] did too.”

For the exhibition, curators have created eight thematic sections covering subjects such as fashion, celebrity, the male body and American photography – with the show set to be the largest temporary photography exhibition in the V&A’s history.

David LaChapelle Elton John, Egg On His Face, New York, 1999David LaChapelle
For this portrait “Egg On His Face” by David LaChapelle in 1991 – Elton John picked up two rubber fried eggs and put them under his glasses as a joke

And two photographs of Sir Elton did make the cut – one of which is particularly unusual.

It’s a portrait of the singer by David LaChapelle from 1991, which shows him with fried eggs for eyes.

“It was completely spontaneous because David was taking Elton’s picture and the fried eggs were actually a model on the table,” Furnish explained.

“And completely spontaneously, Elton picked the plastic eggs up and put them under his glasses. And David grabbed it.

“And that for me says more about Elton’s personality and his sense of humour and irreverence, than anything. And that’s what I love about photography. It can capture a moment and preserve something that isn’t immediately obvious.”

Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection in partnership with Gucci will run from 18 May 2024 to 5 January 2025.