Fragile Beauty review – Elton John and David Furnish’s photo collection goes from basic to brutal

<span>David LaChapelle’s Elton John: Egg on His Face (detail), from Fragile Beauty.</span><span>Photograph: © David LaChapelle</span>
David LaChapelle’s Elton John: Egg on His Face (detail), from Fragile Beauty.Photograph: © David LaChapelle

The latest exhibition of works from Sir Elton John and David Furnish’s gargantuan photography collection is everything you’d expect it to be: spangly, iconoclastic – and a little bit basic. The entry point to the V&A’s largest ever exhibition of photography promises, as the title Fragile Beauty suggests, the frisson of danger in the pursuit of creating something beautiful: the first shot that greets us is a portrait of beekeeper Ronald Fischer, skin crawling with his beloved insects. Richard Avedon found Fischer by putting an ad in the American Bee Journal. He issued two instructions to his sitter: don’t smile and don’t move. Remarkably, Fischer was only stung four times.

The Avedon portrait smacks you in the face with the premise of this show: suffering for one’s art (or making others suffer for it). The seemingly never-ending exhibition unifies 300 works drawn from about 7,000 in the collection, but it is far more personal than the 2016 Radical Eye show at Tate, moving from the 1950s to now, and so spanning John’s own life, as well as the couple’s enduring interests.

The exhibition starts slow and safe: there are so many iconic fashion images and portraits of golden era stars and divas that it might almost be a hall of fame. I feel like I’ve seen many of the photographs 1,000 times before: there’s that Avedon portrait of Nastassja Kinski, then 21, a boa constrictor slithering over her naked body. There’s that Irving Penn red lacquered eyelid picture. Helmut Newton’s Elsa Peretti as Bunny, the New York skyline in the background; Juergen Teller’s Joan Didion; the Beatles, again shot by Avedon (more interesting as a portrait is Robert Freeman’s 1964 vision of the famous four – a shot of their boots). Then we have Warhol and Basquiat in boxing gloves, as seen through Michael Halsband’s lens in 1985.

These are the definitive images of an era, showing the often ill-fated icons of their time. Perhaps if you’re a famous icon yourself, you relate to these images differently. Or maybe this is the corollary of a celebrity-obsessed British public. I didn’t have the patience to figure it out.

Beyond the obvious, there are a few unexpected moments in these initial rooms of what turns out to be a massive, sprawling exhibition that follows many twists and turns. In the fashion section, we see Harley Weir’s electric portrait of Senegalese wrestler Moussa N’diaye, who later died tragically on a boat trying to reach Europe. Taken for a collaboration with designer Grace Wales Bonner in Dakar in 2015, this shot offers something different to the glut of large, pristine black and white silver gelatin prints. Weir photographed N’diaye as, for luck, he prepares for a fight by taking a ritual shower of goat’s milk, contained in a Coca-Cola bottle. It ticks the theme of fragile beauty – vulnerability and submission, strength and power – in a profoundly moving way.

In the room of celebrity portraits, a parodic shot of Miss Piggy by Norman Parkinson adds a bit of light relief, but seems to swerve away from the theme. It is presented next to a portrait of Doris Day posing with a group of poodles, their fur dyed in pastel shades, for the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1952. Must animals also suffer for the art?

A giant Gillian Wearing self-portrait puts a spin on the absurdity of the whole genre of portraiture, and the gritty, raw intimacy of works by Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar undoes the perfection so many of these masters went to great lengths to achieve. William Claxton’s behind-the-scenes portraits of American musicians in the 1950s and 1960s have a looser, dynamic, improvised energy mimetic of the clubs and backstage areas they were shot: Mahalia Jackson, finger raised, mouth open, as you imagine she hits a high note; Dinah Washington dancing, skirt swishing, white high heels jiving.

Related: ‘I want to be where the energy’s at’: photographer Ryan McGinley on youth culture, creativity and being collected by Elton John

The main issue with the presentation of this exhibition is that these photographs were intended to, and have done, so much more than reflect John and Furnish’s personal tastes. But then, that is how so much of art history has been made. One section, Desire, is a roomful of pictures of naked and semi-naked men by famous photographers, but it feels strangely fetishistic. All the photographs depict the same type of man: hairless, taut, young, white. Hung together they feel objectifying. One image says it all: a Ryan McGinley photograph of a couple having sex in front of a wall of McGinley’s Polaroids.

Yet in this room there are also surprises: a small, unusual portrait by Fakir Musafar called Perfect Gentleman, Self-portrait, 1955. It’s one of the more tame works by the American artist, born Roland Loomis, who was known for his radical body modifications, including flesh hook suspension, piercing, contortion and tattooing – explorations of past lives he claimed to have had recollections of from a young age.

Many of these images already belong to the public consciousness, having marked landmark moments. A room of social documentary works includes Boris Yaro’s shot of the moment Robert Kennedy was fatally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, in 1968. The death of anti-war protester Jeffrey Miller in 1970, shot and killed while at a demonstration, is memorialised in a photograph by John Filo. Richard Drew’s The Falling Man – a shot of someone plummeting from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and seared on to the global consciousness – appears. As does another McGinley work, a picture of his friend Sam as he cycles through ash and smoke in the aftermath of the attacks – a comment on the need to see suffering and violence, to witness and document pain and horror.

The high points of Fragile Beauty come when it manages to wrest control from the narrative of being part of the John/Furnish collection. A room simply titled Atlanta – where John had a home for three decades, which he recently sold to move back to the UK – gives a fascinating view of the southern gothic in photography. There are the totally weird and eerie performative portraits of optician turned photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, of friends and family wearing cheap Halloween masks in suburban Kentucky. Together with Sally Mann’s Untitled (Little House), from 1998, and Lewis Baltz’s series Nevada, they create a sense of foreboding in the landscape of the deep south. Meanwhile Alec Soth’s The Farm, Angola State Prison, Louisiana, 2002, showing black prisoners labouring on the horizon, draws the analogy between America’s largest maximum security prisonand the former plantation lands in the Mississippi delta it is built on.

The climax of the exhibition, as photography becomes emancipated as an artistic medium and moves away from document, is morbid and confronting, although it still sticks mostly to famous and iconic artists. Death, sickness and physical fragility haunt the last rooms, from Nan Goldin’s commemorative Thanksgiving shrine, plastered with pictures of life on the edge (and Soth’s picture of Goldin’s bed) to Larry Clark’s ruminations on American abjection and addiction, including a man with a gunshot wound and a pregnant woman shooting up.

Eventually it all explodes, into colour and infinity, the space beyond time, body and place, in a modest room of abstract photography, and in new acquisitions, including Trevor Paglen’s AI piece Bloom, of a tree quivering with pink petals.

Related: Sir Elton John: ‘I collect for the beauty, not the value. I’m in awe of these things’

John himself makes a cheeky appearance in a portrait by David LaChapelle, in a cafe with eggs on his face, toast sliced neatly in two on his plate – but Fragile Beauty really unfolds many different stories, bigger than the personal lives and persistent interests of the two larger-than-life collectors. Although relying on the famous and iconic, and tracing a story mostly through American and European image-makers, Fragile Beauty is about spectacle and being seen, living and dying, struggling and triumphing. It is an epic overview that works best when you forget John and Furnish.

But, just in case you do, it’s signed off with a giant, sparkly E, the last thing you pass on your way out the door.

Fragile Beauty is at the V&A, London