‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A: Studio ZNA lights Sir Elton John & David Furnish Photography Collection

‘Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection’ is an exciting new temporary exhibition at the V&A, South Kensington, which has now opened and is set to run until January 2025. The show incorporates more than 300 rare prints by some of the world’s greatest photographers and represents the institution’s largest photography exhibition to date. Exhibition design is by architects and designers EBBA and lighting design is by Studio ZNA.

Fragile Beauty Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection

Background to the photography collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish

The incredible 20th and 21st-century photography collection belonging to Sir Elton John and David Furnish was built initially out of sight of the public, before a number of initial loans, including Horst P. Horst images to the V&A in 2014, before Tate Modern hosted a highlights exhibition in 2016.

Fashion – the first thematic area, with bespoke pendants giving off reflected light

Darius Himes, Christie’s Deputy Chairman and International Head of Photographs commented this year, just prior to a sale of a number of images from Sir Elton’s former Atlanta home, that:

Within the photography community, Elton’s love for photographs was an open secret for a while. He collected at the masterpiece level and was behind a lot of great interest and collecting power during the ’90s and the 2000s.’

A Gillian Wearing image in the ‘Stars of Stage, Screen and Studio’ section

The collection now boasts more than 7,000 works in total, making it one of the greatest private collections of photography anywhere in the world. Spanning many different genres, the selection now being shown to the public in the V&A show includes work by 140 different photographers, amongst whom are some of the medium’s greatest names, including Eve Arnold, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Zanele Muholi and Ai Weiwei. The V&A describes the exhibition’s contents as ‘An unparalleled selection of the world’s leading photographers, telling the story of modern and contemporary photography.’

View through to ‘Desire’, the third section of the exhibition

Design Approach

The high-profile show is being held in the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery, which, at 1100 sq m, is one of the largest temporary exhibition spaces in the UK.

The ‘Reportage’ room focuses on documentary photography of people and events and includes Malcolm X by Eve Arnold (right)

The space has been broken down into a series of thematic room sets, focusing on different photographic typologies, from celebrity portraits and fashion to reportage and images of desire centred around the male body.

This section features quite diffused light, with a deliberately soft and neutral treatment

London-based architects and designers EBBA, lead exhibition designers, have created a bespoke environment for each thematic section, with a sculptural approach in terms of geometry and surfaces. The room-sets feature varying wall heights and scales, with the design seeking to develop 2D images into the 3D world of an exhibition via the use of coloured walls, for example, and through a clear architectural response to each section, responding sensitively to the way light affects surfaces and materials.

At the centre of ‘Fragile Beauty’ is a monumental light portal installation

The approach to lighting an exhibition where photographs are the main exhibits was challenging and delicate

Zerlina Hughes, Founder and Creative Director of Studio ZNA commented:

‘Photography is all about light and shade and we needed to be very conscious of that in terms of the use of light in the spaces. Our primary focus was for the images to be at their truest and best. Beyond that, it was about creating a context to ensure an optimum viewing environment, using light to suggest the world behind each thematic title. Our treatments therefore range from using diffused light in open and neutral areas to zones of high contrast and dramatic rendition in others, providing a single, intimate focus on each image.’

The Constructed Image’ is the penultimate section

Thematic sections

The eight room-set areas of the exhibition, along with the introductory and finale sections, are arranged as follows: Introduction, Fashion, Stars of Stage and Screen, Desire, Reportage, The American Scene, Fragile Beauty, The Constructed Image, Towards Abstraction, and Finale.

The final section includes a mirrored wall for visitors to see themselves, playing with ideas of observer and observed

The lighting design approach for each room set needed to work both with the photography on display and with the treatment EBBA created for that space. For the ‘Fashion’ section, for example, which features dramatic scenography, a dropped ceiling allowed for the integration of bespoke pendants giving off reflected light. ‘The American Scene’ meanwhile features quite diffused light, a very soft and neutral treatment which works with the landscape images on show, whilst the portraits in ‘Fragile Beauty’ are treated individually for a more intimate experience. ‘Towards Abstraction’ features a bolder and more geometric 3D design experience, with lighting treatment to match. A monumental light portal installation of 149 Nan Goldin prints from her ‘Thanksgiving’ series is a stand-out feature, supported by an intense and intimate viewing environment and illuminated ceiling. The 3D and lighting design for the ‘Finale’ section is uplifting and celebratory.

Photography by James Retief and Victoria and Albert Museum, London


About Alys Bryan

Alys is a knowledgeable design editor who is focused on instigating conversations, both online and in-person, with industry experts which challenge, educate and advance the commercial interior sector. Her training and 15 years of professional experience as a furniture designer for the commercial sector makes her uniquely placed to lead Design Insider as Editor
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