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Elton John photography exhibition reviews: what the critics say

The reviews of the Elton John photography exhibition at the V&A are in.


And the critic's verdict is...it's big, and it's fine.


Technically of course the exhibition — which is now open at the Victoria and Albert Museum — is not photos by, or photos of, the music superstar Sir Elton, but is actually a major display of his huge photography collection.


Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection sees 300 images displayed at the London museum. Which is a lot — one critic calls it "never-ending" — but it's actually only a small selection of the 7,000 or so Elton and his husband have acquired over the past 30 years.


On show are portraits of famous faces such as Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Fishburne, Robin Williams and Daniel Craig. And works shot by famous photo artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Zanele Muholi, Ai Weiwei, Carrie Mae Weems.


But critics don't universally love it. Only a few of the exhibition reviews thought it was a stellar show. All admit it's too sprawling.


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Firstly, the Independent's Mark Hudson was a fan. He says that "we’ve almost lost sight of [photography's] original power" but that "the best images in this tumultuous show, from whichever period, have the capacity to make us excited about the very idea of photography, all over again."


Inspiring a wholesale reassessment of a medium is not a bad result for one exhibition!


Portrait photograph of a woman displayed on wall on its own at the V&A exhibition
Installation image of 'Fragile Beauty' at V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hudson's four-star review adds that "the most powerful section is Reportage, looking at the subject of “photojournalism.” He says it is in this room — with its images of Martin Luther King and President Kennedy immediately after he was shot — is where visitors are taken "to world-changing moments with an intensity that utterly transcends that rather bland term." Powerful stuff.


Time Out's Eddy Frankel loved it even more. Awarding it five-stars, he said the "dazzling" show was "absolutely rammed full of iconic images by some of the most important names in photography."


But he says the reason why it is such a blockbuster is because of how it connects with Sir Elton's own story.


"This exhibition is a portrait of Elton" Frankel says. It "spills out a story about style, fashion, the crippling excesses of success, the endless, head spinning allure of sexuality" and it ultimately is "because it’s Elton John’s collection that this exhibition works."


Yet Frankel agrees that there's a hell of a lot of images on show, including "a lot of guff." Which is a sentiment shared by the Daily Telegraph.

Photographs displayed on a curved wall at the V&A museum exhibition of Elton John's photographs
Installation image of 'Fragile Beauty' at V&A South Kensington © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alastair Sooke says that Fragile Beauty is a "behemoth of an exhibition" that "proves bewilderingly various." He said that his visit to the too-vast show "felt like [being] a pinball whooshed willy-nilly around a gigantic arcade game."


He didn't like the "self-aggrandising moments" but he ultimately concluded that the exhibition "is worth visiting."


Sooke's three stars were awarded for the fact that the V&A is showing photos that are "of immaculate quality and provenance, [and] are often spellbinding."


The Guardian shared some of this middling opinion. "The exhibition starts slow and safe" Charlotte Jansen thinks. The shots of famous faces from the golden eras of Hollywood have been well trodden she writes. "I feel like I’ve seen many of the photographs 1,000 times before."


And Jansen wasn't a fan of the room dedicated to images of naked and semi-naked men. "Strangely fetishistic" is her verdict.


In contrast to Frankel at Time Out, she argues "the high points of Fragile Beauty come when it manages to wrest control from the narrative of being part of the John/Furnish collection" and that ultimately, "it is an epic overview that works best when you forget" the famous collectors.


Photo of Elton John with eggs over his eyes and holding a cup of tea
David LaChapelle, Elton John, Egg On His Face, New York, 1999 © David LaChapelle

There were also reservations for the Time's Laura Freeman.


She says John's collection "feels more encyclopaedic than idiosyncratic" and that the sponsorship by Gucci, the high production values and the celebrity sparkle, all amount to a show which "feels like a designer boutique." She adds that despite being "expensively finished and flatteringly lit" and with "the quality of the works undeniable" Freeman says she found it an art exhibition "hard to love."


"You name it, they have it. But somehow it doesn’t sing as a whole."


Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection — in partnership with Gucci — is open now and runs until 5 January 2025. Buy the exhibition book here.


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