Tim Walker's Thrilling Fashion Photographs
Go on ShowThe Telegraph, September 2012
By Penny Martin
With its fairytale sets and arresting images, Tim Walker's fashion photography is instantly recognisable. A new exhibition and book are set to celebrate his recent work.
For the handful of elite fashion photographers who shoot the industry's most high-profile advertising campaigns, October can mean only one thing: long days spent in airless studios with supermodels, photographing the spring/summer collections. Except for Tim Walker, that is, who is putting all his usual commitments on hold next month to take up residence in a neoclassical palace in London. As the subject of Somerset House's forthcoming exhibition, Tim Walker: Story Teller, he will instead spend the next few weeks suspending a giant skeleton from the ceiling of the building's barrel-vaulted galleries, installing a 12ft doll that has spooky, blinking eyes into the museum, and crashing a real Spitfire through its walls.
This might all sound like a jolly sabbatical from the business of making pictures that sell shoes and handbags, were it not for the fact that these props are exactly how Tim Walker sells shoes and handbags in his pictures.
Since Walker was first published in British Vogue in 1996, his work has moved further and further from the look and feel of mainstream fashion photography and the increasingly conservative path it has taken. At the start of the last decade, when the substantial budgets required for shooting on location began to wane, many photographers turned to the photo-studio itself as subject matter for their cool, knowing fashion stills. Yet Walker, 41, has always gone his own way. In search of something warmer, he unearthed the kind of mansion houses and charming country-side spots he recalled from his upbringing on the Devon-Dorset border as settings for his fantastical shoots. It was the beauty and specificity of these locations that made Walker's pictures stand out, and earned him commissions from the industry's most powerful magazines, US Vogue and Vogue Italia, to which he remains a regular contributor.
Before going to Exeter to study photography, Walker spent a year working on the Cecil Beaton archive as an intern at the Condé Nast library. After completing his degree, he became a freelance assistant, then went to New York to work with Richard Avedon. When he returned to London in 1996, he concentrated on portraits and documentary photography for newspapers, but it was not long before he was being commissioned for Vogue .
Just as he was putting British fashion photography on the international map, he was also mapping Britishness on to his pictures, cramming them full of references to national folklore, social history, English literature and fairy tales. And central to this were the props, costumes and sets he devised with the set designers Simon Costin, Shona Heath, Andy Hillman and Rhea Thierstein. 'It's the set design of my work that interests me the most,' Walker says now of the mesmerising scenarios they created together - models emerging from the pages of magazines, living-room interiors set up in the middle of fields, tents pitched inside country houses. It wasn't the slick execution or verisimilitude of the sets that made Walker's images work, rather the opposite: their obvious artifice and sense of whimsy that created a lightness and gentility. 'The kind of theatrical photographs I take are so in danger of being kitsch and gimmicky,' he says. 'The performances are slightly hammy; it's a dangerous line to tread. The sets are a way of bringing the picture back to something beautiful.'
Walker's love of handicraft and the material aspects of image-making extends to the way he presents his photographs. In 2008 he published Pictures, a book documenting his first 12 years of work. Though it was immensely successful at the time, he can't open it now without seeing mistakes. 'I'd never done a book before and I had so much to say that everything came out like visual diarrhoea.' So four years on, he was taking no chances with Tim Walker: Story Teller, the handsome monograph that accompanies the Somerset House show. He sought out the renowned New York-based art director Ruth Ansel to ensure a clean, airy layout and above all a rigorous edit.
'I first met Ruth when I assisted Richard Avedon and she was his in-house art director; I used to change her light bulbs and empty her bins,' Walker says. 'I spent three months collating the images before she came along and said, "This is repetitive. That's gotta go." It was a torturous process but I'm thrilled with the result.' The idea of turning Walker's quotes into typographic shapes to be interspersed between the images came to Ansel courtesy of Lewis Carroll. 'Tim's love of fashion is all about telling a story, so when he introduced the notion of fairy tales, I began to explore Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,' she says. 'Once I saw how the fanciful shapes created pace through the book, we were off.'
The most noticeable development in the four years' work featured in the book is its shift away from the highly detailed tableaux of Walker's earlier photography towards simpler sets and darker themes. There is also greater focus on characterisation, as expressed in his stripped-down 'tabletop portraits'. This is in part owing to his experience directing the 2010 short film The Lost Explorer, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel. Walker says working with a screenwriter forced him to rethink his approach to narrative. 'The most important thing about film is the story and the character and then your visualisation,' he says. 'The words are the key.' He would love to direct a feature film, so spent his summer holiday in the cottage he owns in the Cheviot Hills, 'reading everything I could get my hands on that could work as a film'.
As much as Walker wants the challenge of adopting a new medium, he hasn't lost sight of the magic of the old one. All pictures included in the book and exhibition were shot entirely on film. He is not a digital refusenik, he says, but he laments how digital photography has limited the quality and especially the colour range of fashion photography. 'If you look at magazines now, there's sort of a common colour across them all.' And don't get him started on the subject of digital monitors, and how their introduction into the portrait studio has destroyed the delicate one-on-one relationship between the photographer and the sitter. Walker's world is often described as nostalgic, but one senses that the past isn't merely sentimental for him; it is also political. 'I'm resisting proceeding without caution,' he says. 'Culture and society are moving so quickly that I think we need to ask whether in throwing out the rubbish so readily, there might be a few gems in there that we're not quite ready to get rid of. Like femininity. Or innocence. Or our sense of wonderment.'