Elton John’s private art advisor on his collecting obsession

“One time I tried to give him back a few months later – I was very new to the job, but I should have known better,” says Newell Harbin

“One time I tried to give him back a few months later – I was very new to the job, but I should have known better,” says Newell Harbin – Hannah Starkey

A few years ago, Newell Harbin was at Elton John’s house – the one in Atlanta, as opposed to the one in Windsor, London, Nice or LA. She had recently become director of his photo collection and he gave her a tour. Pause at Robert Frank’s 1955 photo Trolley-New Orleans, she dated it wrong. ‘I found myself saying, “Oh wait, no” – and he not only corrected me, he told me what year he bought it and how much he paid. He has 7,000 photos!’

We are at the top of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in a part of the building that would give the artist Piranesi’s haunting architectural fantasies a run for their money. Through mottled glass windows, doves wobble and bloom in soft shapes. Hundreds of meters below, headlights stream on the Cromwell Road in South Kensington until late afternoon.

Harbin is here to oversee the installation of Fragile Beauty, an exhibition of around 300 photographs from the collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish, which she co-curated with the V&A. It is a follow-up to Tate Modern’s acclaimed Radical Eye from 2016, which presented photographs from the modernist-era collection: prints by Brassaï, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and the like.

Fragile Beauty covers the period from 1950 to the present and will be the largest temporary photography exhibition the V&A has ever organized, which is quite something considering the museum houses the national collection of the art of photography. But Sir Elton, 77, and Furnish, 61, have quietly earned white knight status in the industry, helping to support and spread photography knowledge. In 2014, they lent money to the V&A’s Horst P. Horst retrospective and made a ‘significant’ donation to the museum’s extensive Photography Centre. Furthermore, it would be difficult to overestimate the power of their collection, which is valued not only for its range and nuance, but also – above all – for the rarity and legendary provenance of the prints.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” says Harbin, as he places a Diane Arbus, no bigger than a postcard, in my hands. It is that of twin girls, perhaps the American photographer’s most famous image. My heart sinks a little at collecting numbers, but then Harbin turns it around. On the back is a note from Arbus to her mentor, the great documentary filmmaker Walker Evans, who recognized in his protégé “an eye cultivated to show your fear in a handful of dust.”

In the note she invites him to her exhibition – New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The 1967 exhibition was groundbreaking because it demonstrated for the first time that documentary photography could transcend mere observation. Its influence rumbles on to this day. “Isn’t it just the absolute?” Harbin says happily.

When Harbin gets going, she has the air of an excited child. She bursts with elation, in rhapsody about artists, movements, colors. Her speech is saturated with enthusiasm: in the hour we talk, 25 times ‘nice’, 29 times ‘great’ and 30 times ‘incredible’. Minutes in her company and you feel it too.

‘Hold on. Can I show you this?’ she says, walking around a table covered in framed photos. It’s a 1973 image by William Eggleston of cables snaking across a blood-red ceiling to a light bulb. The Mississippian was thought to be the first to borrow the dye transfer printing process from magazine advertisements, but the color is slightly different. Next, a 1966 self-portrait by the late Peter Hujar. In 2022, Sir Elton compiled a Hujar survey for the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and Furnish gave him the photo for his 70th birthday. The couple often calls on Harbin for this: the Tina Barney that Sir Elton Furnish donated in 2011 (below), of two men in the back of a limousine, is also in the exhibition.

The couple is a serious and strategic collector, but “never after the trophy piece,” Harbin emphasizes. ‘They are looking for the piece that appeals to them or moves them.’ The best moments, she adds, are when they come up to her and say, “I just saw this, it looked like this, you have to find it.” Then I become Nancy Drew.’ She laughs. ‘It’s fun.’

Harbin is 45, with a lilting southern accent. She is taller than average; stylishly dressed but without visible extravagance. She ended up through MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and Phillips de Pury auctioneers, but is from Atlanta and got the gig with Sir Elton because she knew Jane Jackson from the Atlanta gallery Jackson Fine Art.

Jackson had been director of Sir Elton’s photography collection since 2003, but had been his advisor for much longer. Coincidentally, she opened her gallery just before he moved to Atlanta in the early 1990s (he loved the rich music culture and his then-boyfriend, Hugh Williams, lived there) and had his photography epiphany. It also coincided with his quitting drugs and alcohol. Harbin tells me the story: ‘He was staying with a friend in the south of France and with David Fahey [owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles] came to lunch and showed them a portfolio of prints. Elton says he saw for the first time how incredible a photo it really was. He saw it with clean eyes – with sober eyes. And that’s when he got the bug.”

Sir Elton bought eight photos on the spot: fashion prints by the masters Irving Penn, Horst and Herb Ritts. He had recently sold the contents of his Windsor home at Sotheby’s – gold discs, crazy glasses, shoes – yet prints were relatively cheap at the time; few galleries showed photographs and auction houses had only recently begun to sell them. It could be argued that Sir Elton bought it from Man Ray Glass tears (1932) for $193,895 in 1993—at the time a record for a photograph at auction—helped fuel the subsequent boom. Man Rays Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) sold for $12.4 million in 2022.

“When he started collecting,” says Harbin, who began working with Sir Elton in 2010 and took over as director in 2012, “he focused on modernist prints because they were usually small and he didn’t have a lot of wall space, just a one room apartment. But then he bought a few more [five] apartments and connected them together, and he was able to collect something as well.”

Harbin is talking about Peachtree Road, Atlanta, the 13,000-square-foot condo that Sir Elton and Furnish recently sold. “I don’t know if you’ve seen a photo of it,” she says, “but we hung it salon style [where artworks are placed close together, in multiple rows] and we always joked that you could never really see the wallpaper.’ In February, the contents of the apartment fetched $20,537,842 at Christie’s. More than 300 photos were released, ‘but a collection must be organic, a living, breathing thing’.

Harbin has an assistant in Atlanta and a clerk in London. The collection is kept in three climate-controlled storage facilities, location top secret. What was her mission when she started? ‘No!’ she laughs. ‘I jumped right in. However, it took a while. I had an institutional background and in a private collection it is very different; you have to understand someone’s taste. I don’t always get it right – fourteen years later I still think: oh, they’re going to want this right away! I must start my negotiations now! And it’s a no. Elton is very decisive.’

Does she ever push back? ‘Oh no. I discovered that. A few months later I tried to give him something back – I was very new to the job, but I should have known better. He has an incredible memory. I mean, what was I thinking?’

In 2011, just after the couple’s son Zachary was born, Harbin approached Furnish with an idea. She had noticed that there was a ‘babygram’ of Adam Fuss in the collection. The British artist makes photograms (right) of clouds of smoke and snakes, but also of babies. When Harbin suggested he and Sir Elton have one made, Furnish was immediately enthusiastic.

In a babygram, the baby is placed on his back in the dark in a giant tray filled with an inch or two of heated water. Fuss and the parents wear night vision goggles and each print takes about an hour to make. He made seven each for Zachary and later for the couple’s second son, Elijah. Afterwards, Harbin decided she wanted a babygram, too: “But my kids were acting terribly. I was sitting there with goggles on, a snake in a cage behind me and my precious babies splashing around and screaming for the hills.” Fuss was patient,’ but he joked, ‘Elton’s kids were much better.’

In the catalog for Fragile Beauty, the curators recall making a number of selections while standing in the shower room of Sir Elton and Furnish in Windsor. I ask about the ones in the kitchen and the bedroom, but Harbin sticks to the schtum. The collection is known to be rich in Irving Penns – almost 110 prints, says Harbin, when I ask her – and they also have a complete set of Nan Goldin’s Thanksgiving149 photos documenting the American photographer’s life in and around heroin addiction between 1973 and 1999. ‘When he saw it, Elton told me, he thought, ‘This was my life: the love, the loss, the drugs, finding sobriety.’ ‘

Stars of stage and film play a role in the collection, even though they are often troubled people – Marilyn Monroe, for example, and Chet Baker. For the rest, there is little overlap with Sir Elton’s music career that lasted more than sixty years.

Their photojournalistic holdings, by contrast, are “vast”: photographs of civil rights heroes, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Coretta Scott King; of AIDS activism in the 1980s; and 9/11, of which the couple has about 2,200 images. Falling man – Richard Drew’s famous photo of a man plummeting from the World Trade Center – took Harbin two years to acquire. They don’t show it.

“Elton has been scouring the papers ever since,” she says, “which has become intense in recent years with Trump and Ukraine, but every now and then we get a funny comment; an ironic photo that a random photojournalist captured. And we just think it’s hilarious, so we bring it in.”

It can’t be easy being someone else’s eyes. ‘Certainly. It’s a learning curve. And I get much, much more now than when I was two years old. But you know what? They always surprise me. And I like that. It would be boring if they didn’t.’

Fragile Beauty: Photographs From the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection is on view at the V&A from 18 May 2024
until January 5, 2025; vam.ac.uk

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