Dawn Gibson experiences the extraordinary creative process of one of the world’s most imaginative photographers, at an immersive TIM WALKER retrospective at London’s V&A
Kate Moss, Nicole Kidman, Timothée Chalamet, Sir David Attenborough, Tilda Swinton, David Hockney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Björk – what do all of these celebrities have in common? They have all appeared before the lens of British photographer and filmmaker Tim Walker, a prolific presence in international creative circles since he shot his first Vogue story at the age of 25.
Since the late 1990s, it has been difficult to pick up a fashion magazine without chancing upon Walker, because his shoots have featured in the American, British and Italian editions of Vogue, as well as numerous other leading style-led publications.
His distinctive approach blends whimsical flights of fancy and fairy tales with dramatic, carefully considered settings and a nod to prominent photographers of the past. The theatrical flavour of his compositions makes his images superbly suitable for their latest showcase, Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, the largest ever exhibition of the photographer’s work, celebrating his creativity over the past quarter of a century.
The exhibition is less of a retrospective and more of an invitation to step into the fantastical world concocted by Walker and his long-time collaborator, designer Shona Heath, who has created a series of striking sets. Three years in the making and inspired by the V&A’s enormous collection, images veer from an angry crimson-tinged Grace Jones in tribute to the jewel-like colours of 16th century stained glass panels, and a bright blue elephant in front of a floating temple in Rajasthan, to supermodel Karen Elson (a favourite muse of Walker’s) photographed in Bhutan wearing an Alexander McQueen gown resplendent with crescent moons and pearls.
Also on display, are more than 150 new works influenced by an eclectic range of the V&A’s objects, including a 50-metre hand-painted photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry and an elegant bejewelled snuffbox, decorated with a dragon. These new works were the result of an extensive research process that included Walker meeting with dozens of curators, exploring the V&A’s collections in storage as well as in the public galleries and even scaling the museum’s roof!
“To me, the V&A has always been a palace of dreams – it’s the most inspiring place in the world,” Walker explains. “Many of the objects I saw during my research at the museum made my heart swell and I wanted to try and create a photograph that would relate not only to the physical presence and beauty of that object, but also to my emotional reaction to it.”
The exhibition begins in a stark white rectangle featuring a selection of Walker’s pictures from the past 25 years, arranged according to the themes of muses, gardens and more. Here you will see Kristen McMenamy as a mermaid in a vertical fish tank; Nicole Kidman in a surreal, all-white Comme des Garçons ensemble and Kate Moss in multiple settings, including the Coco Chanel suite at Ritz Paris and posing on a rooftop. In a little nook in the back you will also find miniatures of Moss reclining nude.
Unusually, Walker has personally written the introductions to each part of the exhibition, explains Susanna Brown, the V&A’s photograph curator: “It’s not the conventional museum voice or the curatorial voice – it’s much more personal and emotional than that. From the moment our visitors enter the galleries, I think they will feel that Tim is really taking you by the hand and guiding them on a fantastic journey through his imagination.”
Walker began to understand the history of photography by discovering the work of leading lights such as Sir Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon when he worked in the Vogue archive as an 18-year-old, so there’s naturally a selection devoted to fashion photography. While the genre borders are a little blurred, exquisite imagery courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga, Chanel, Saint Laurent and Balmain standout throughout.
“Fashion photography is the dream department of photography,” he explains in the introduction to the fashion images. “When you’re a fashion photographer, everything is an illusion from the start.”
From the white room, visitors can explore 10 adjoining rooms, each devoted to a different shoot, with the objects that inspired each shoot prominently displayed. Each is a visual feast of photography, artistic works, film and props spanning multiple centuries and continents, which makes it difficult to decide where to look first. And as one wanders through the rooms, dream-like garden landscapes and serene supermodels are often juxtaposed with a frisson of the dark.
The Cloud 9 shoot is among the most arresting. Inspired by 16th century paintings of Hindu gods, the vibrantly colourful photos appear to explode in their black-roomed surroundings, reminiscent of India’s Holi festivities. Interestingly, the models are posing in a delphinium field in rural England during a heatwave, underlying Walker’s theme of fashion imagery as illusion. To underline the point, a menagerie of stilt-legged fantastical beasts hang from the ceiling.
In delicious contrast, Box of Delights is a claustrophobia-inducing pink room lined in ghastly floral wallpaper and matching carpet. On the walls, illustrator and model James Spencer cavorts in a sumptuous floral gown, the setting inspired by a 17th century embroidered casket which is on display nearby. An 18th century court Mantua gown – the starting point for Spencer’s dramatic costume – is also on show. Box of Delights is the height of camp and Heath’s favourite room. “I like the fact that it has what you would class as horrible wallpaper, but you can make it work, and that to me is a challenge and very good fun,” she says. “I am always inspired by the kitsch. I like the freedom that comes with people not knowing what it is that they are meant to like.”
Having worked with Walker for 20 years, Heath describes him as a risk taker who pushes her beyond her boundaries, recounting an incident where he coerced her into going up in a hot air balloon. “I have done my most reckless things with Tim,” she says with a laugh, telling another tale that’s too likely to lead to trouble to print.
Heath is one of several long-term collaborators among Walker’s circle of stylists, models, hair and make-up artists and it’s clear that he inspires a wealth of devotion and admiration among those he works with. His willingness to share the spotlight is evidenced by the list of names accompanying his in the introductions to each room.
Brown saw this collaboration in action during the ambitious shoots leading up to the exhibition. “You realise it is not only about Tim’s aesthetic skill and craftsmanship as a photographer, but it is also about him being like the conductor of the orchestra or the director of the play,” she says. “Tim does that with such grace and he makes it look very effortless. I think part of the reason he often collaborates with the same people is because, once you find those people you know are willing to give 110% every time and who can see the magic in the way that you see it, that’s very precious.”
Collaboration is also at the heart of the many short films showcased alongside the photographs. And beyond the exhibition, several of Walker’s films feature in the V&A’s permanent galleries. His latest, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, is a balletic interpretation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, with music by Björk and narration by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie.
Fans of Walker’s fashion imagery can expect to be both satiated and confronted by Wonderful Things, which he aptly describes as an “attempt to capture my encounter with the sublime.” Throughout the exhibition, the theatrical threads stitched into Walker’s shoots have been skilfully woven into an immersive, surreal experience, that plays with the diverse influences which have inspired the photographer’s work over the years. Yet, Wonderful Things is much more than picking apart the tangles of Walker’s past – it’s about exploring new strands of creativity and looking beyond conventional notions of beauty under a myriad of guises. What a wonderfully rich and magical tapestry Walker’s world is.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things runs until 8 March 2020 at London’s V&A