Tim Walker: Stars and Models
Knokke-Heist International Fotofestival, September 2010
By Esther Rosser
The very best models are, for Tim Walker, ‘silent-movie actresses’. (1) The model is the star of the fashion photograph and it is around her that the narrative succeeds or fails. Accordingly, she embodies the essence of the image, or the ‘mood’ as Walker often refers to it. She must tell you her story without speaking a word.
Models are accustomed to communicating with only their body or face, and it is perhaps for this reason that Walker preferentially casts them over the current preponderance of Hollywood celebrities. Furthermore, with the possible exception of Kate Moss, models do not occupy the tell-all celebrity realm in the same manner as contemporary movie stars. Thus, with these actresses of the fashion photograph we are transported into the constructed fantasy without the distraction of conflicting ‘real-life’ paparazzi or red-carpet images. The suspension of disbelief, a core foundation of narrative film, is found instead in the malleable figure of the fashion model.
That Walker has an eye for the uncommonly beautiful is no coincidence. Walker’s imagery is so elaborate and theatrical that the model must establish her role, or risk being swallowed up by her surroundings. His leading ladies, like Karen Elson, Erin O’Connor and Lily Cole, have a suitably unconventional appeal.
Acting is, on the most basic level, pretending to be someone or something else. This implies a level of artifice within which fashion photography comfortably sits. While not all photographers require their models to assume a character, this trait exemplifies the level on which Walker’s work is not only an elaboration of his own imagination, but also, and perhaps more profoundly, an in-depth exploration of fashion photography itself.
Fashion photography necessarily operates at a distance from reality. Originally performing the function of illustration, fashion photography quickly moved on from the straight-forward depiction of clothing, in the process gradually severing the connection between the garment itself and its representation. Irving Penn famously observed that fashion photography is about selling dreams and not clothes. Indeed, the vast majority of people access high fashion in a mediated form, often via the escapism of the photograph that allows us to dream of a life, and a wardrobe, that is different from our own.
Uninterested in the technicalities of photography, Walker found early encouragement in the idea that the camera is simply a box you put between yourself and what you want to capture. He conceives of the viewfinder as ‘a window to something magical’. (2) This conception of photography is evident in both his working practice and his finished products. The magic in Walker’s pictures takes place in front of the camera and without the use of digital manipulation. Walker is driven to capture an imagined scene and yet he does this by using props and sets, creating trompe l’oeil effects. What we see in the final photograph has in fact undergone several transformations; initially from the imagination of Walker (an unreal dimension), to an actualization in real space and real-time before his camera, and finally returning once more to the realm of fantasy through the eyes of the viewer.
On one level, Walker’s oeurve could be described as an exploration of nostalgia. There is an immediate temptation here: an attempt to pinpoint the location of this nostalgia in, for instance, Walker’s own childhood (which was idyllic by anyone’s standards) or in post-war Britain (the very ‘Englishness’ of Walker’s characters and scenery seem to suggest this). However, nostalgia is in fact the recollection of a time or place that never actually existed—it is a memory without location. Memory itself is full of gaps and slips, entirely subjective and prone to fabrication. Walker has stated: ‘What I am photographing is an imaginary place that never existed, but is connected to something that has already been.’ (3) The indexical quality often attributed to photography, is complicated by Walker’s use of nostalgia—leaving us in a liminal space between the past and the present, the real and the imaginary.
Walker delights in the idea that photography can elicit an emotive response, highlighting its communicative function. Fashion photography has often been dismissed as interested in nothing more than consumerism, and yet almost since its very beginnings it has been interested in story-telling. The editorial fashion spread is typically where such stories play out, allowing the photographer the scope to explore a particular idea through the fashion and/or mise-en-scène of an extended sequence. In this way, the fashion spread can act like a series of film-stills; the larger narrative filling the gaps between the pages where we glimpse isolated moments from the story.
It is also here that the dualistic and—as the critics would have us believe—conflicting notions of creativity and commercialism reside. Fashion photography is by definition part of a much larger industry, occupying a middle ground between the fashion and garment trade on the one hand, and the mass media on the other. The fashion photographer assumes a position similar to that of the film director within a team of contributors’ including hair and make-up artists, stylists, set-designers, etc. The director may have a very specific vision, but must also draw on the creative and technical expertise of others in order to realize the end-product. While cynically, we might not include advertisers or editors as part of this creative team it is necessary to concede that they play an important role in the commissioning process—allowing photographers, if they are any good, to survive.
Walker is a collector. He collects ideas and images from a variety of sources and works on these within his diaries and scrapbooks, combining elements, building a narrative mood, and collaborating with others to achieve a final result. Each picture is the accumulation of endless hours of preparation, all of the elements layered like a puzzle. This level of premeditation is evidenced in the content of the images, and furthermore, in the deliberate incongruity Walker creates, toying with concepts such as scale and colour.
Like the very best of children’s fairytales, there remains in Walker’s pictures an off-note, a dangerous undertone. There is a sense that the precariously complex scene might collapse, and our magnificent heroine topple tragically to earth. While the models remain unfathomably gorgeous—other-worldly creatures in couture—their often chaotic, dilapidated surroundings provide a note of contrast. These surroundings, that might never be wholly clean or tidy, reveal a history of use, and tell a story of imperfection to which we can relate. The contrast in this combination reminds us that life can be beautiful, even in less than ideal circumstances; that there is romance in the everyday.
What many have observed as a childlike notion of play in Walker’s oeuvre, could be otherwise articulated as an inherent optimism—something which, coincidentally, many of us lose beyond our youth. Regardless of the particular mood or the diverse narrative explorations, Walker’s imagery is joyful. You simply cannot be depressed when looking at Walker’s pictures—nor can you ever be bored.
Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography, K.U. Leuven
1 ‘In Fashion, Tim Walker’, Interview with Penny Martin, 3 June 2009, www.showstudio.com
2 ‘In Fashion, Tim Walker’.
3 Charlotte Sinclair, British Vogue, June 2008. Emphasis added.