An Essay on Elton John’s Rare Photography Collection

‘Glass Tears’ by Man Ray, 1932 (The Sir Elton John Photography Collection/Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016) | Image insert by

‘Elton John for all his wealth, celebrity and the access it grants him to the art world, is not, in his words, “an art trophy collector”,’ suggests Sean O’Hagan in his piece for The Guardian. ‘He buys what he loves and, since 1991, what he has loved most of all is photography.’

Tracy Calder at Cupoty Newsletter: When Sir Elton John left rehab in 1990, he replaced his addiction to drugs and alcohol with an obsession of a different kind – photography. Freshly sober, he suddenly had new respect for photography as an art form, ‘It was like I was seeing with clear eyes,’ he remarked in The Guardian in 2016.

The musician and singer began his collection with a few images by Irving Penn, Herb Ritts and Horst P. Horst, but by 1993 his passion (and wealth) was so boundless that he splashed out $193,895 on a print of Man Ray’s Glass Tears (a record-breaking figure at the time). Aside from its obvious beauty and historical importance, this image served as a reminder to Elton of how far he had come. As a young man he had shared a bedroom of his family home with Bernie Taupin and the pair decorated the walls with cheap posters bought from Athena – Glass Tears was among them.

The Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection now contains more than 7,000 works and is one of the largest private collections of photography in the world. Director of the collection Newell Harbin believes at one point Elton and his husband were buying a picture a week – impressive when you think about how slow museums and other private institutions acquire work.

‘Solarized man’ by Maurice Tabard, 1930. (The Sir Elton John Photography Collection) | Image insert by

In fact, the collection grew so rapidly that Elton purchased an 18,000sqft apartment in Atlanta and filled it floor-to-ceiling with prints. Looking at pictures of the couple’s Peachtree Road residence you can see Sugimoto portraits suspended on the balcony, a cut-out by Callahan next to Elton’s desk and Lange’s famous image of Florence Owens Thompson (Migrant Mother) nestled among other depression-era work. In a video publicizing the 2016 exhibition The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from The Sir Elton John Collection Elton joked he might, ‘die in bed having been hit over the head by a falling Man Ray.’

With his farewell tour behind him (and no need for a base in the US), Elton sold his Atlanta apartment in November last year. A few months later some of the contents from his condo – including a William Morris Burial Raft, several pairs of trademark thick-rimmed glasses and, of course, a selection of prints – went under the hammer at Christie’s, New York. (One of the Sugimoto portraits fetched an impressive $44,100.)

Despite whittling down his collection, Elton’s love of photography (which he shares with David) shows no sign of abating. In a few weeks the Victoria & Albert Museum in London will be hosting Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection, comprising more than 300 works from 140 photographers. Some of these pieces are known as ‘unicorn prints’ – a name Elton, David and Newell use to describe work that has been particularly hard to come by.

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, 1936 (The Sir Elton John Photography Collection) | Image insert by

Elton is a perfectionist and will reject a print with minor imperfections, even if he loves the picture. It’s an attitude that marks him out as a serious collector, a rank that was confirmed by Lydia Caston, Exhibitions Project Curator at the V&A when we sat down to chat recently. (You can read my full interview with Lydia in Amateur Photographer and B+W Photography magazines soon.)

Lydia and the team spent two years studying the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection, selecting works from 1950 onward to appear in the show (The Radical Eye covered the period from 1910 to 1949). When I ask Lydia what she hopes people will take away from the exhibition, she’s quick to answer. ‘Obviously I hope it’s an enjoyable experience, but I also hope people understand that Elton and David are serious collectors with a museum-standard collection… The conservation team have been thrilled with the condition of everything.’