British Vogue, June 2008
By Charlotte Sinclair
Fashion photographer Tim Walker doesn’t seem to belong to the world of you or me. He’s a Peter Pan, a daydreamer, a fantasist. His pictures are mirages, telling stories conjured directly from an imagination that most of us left behind in childhood. Looking at Tim’s photographs is like following the white rabbit into a world where elephants are painted blue, horses are dusted lilac, paintings come to life and pretty girls with Thirties faces are transformed into marionettes or abandoned princesses.
Tim creates photographs that evoke wonder – a skill as rare and fragile as one of his butterflies. In presenting his imagination to us, his photographs remind us of our own capacity to dream. And, even though his images are pure whimsy, they feel true because they have been meticulously executed. Understandably, then, in an age when wonder is in such short shortage, Walker’s work is both the subject of an exhibition, Tim Walker, at the Design Museum, SE1 and a new book, Tim Walker: Pictures.
Walker is dark haired, slight and stubbled, a gratifyingly sprite-like 37-year-old with eyes that flash brightly when he talks about what inspires him and turn dark and penetrating when he talks about what doesn’t. He is not fey, nor mischievous, naïve or dreamy, but serious and articulate about his work. Yet he’s also the first to declare, “It’s a bit of fun, it’s sport,” if the conversation veers too far into artistic analysis.
We meet in his London home, secreted down a cobbled alley in Shoreditch and identifiable by heavy oak front door, marked with a small Danish flag (Walker’s partner, Jacob, a stylist, is Danish) and a hand-drawn sign, decorated with stars, that politely asks visitors to “please pull’ the Victorian doorbell. Inside, steep concrete stairs lead into narrow light rooms stacked atop one another like shoeboxes and filled with treasures and ephemera. A flock of bronze birds races across the windowpanes, old signs from jumble sales and garden centres are propped up on second-hand dressers, and tea is served from a silver teapot, bought because it reminded him of a flying saucer.
Stuck on the wall and slid into the corner of picture frames are handwritten cards with snatches of idea. Tim is an obsessive collector and scrapbook keeper. In fact, the scrapbooks are his work, where he sketches ideas and creates storyboards for his shoots. His diaries are a “bank of ideas”; he fills them with news stories about Styrofoam cars floating over Piccadilly Circus, photographs from Country Life (to which he subscribes), and words such as ”Blue Haze on Camel Hill” – the name of a house he loves. He adores film (Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a favourite), and describes himself as a voracious reader – “I’m in love with Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter at the moment,” he says, offering me biscuits from a Fifties cake tin.
His was an idyllic childhood. “My brother and I were always building camps in our garden,” he recalls. “We had bonfires and fireworks, and did target practice with an air gun.” On the wall is an old photograph of him, his older brother Rupert and their father. They are holding hands in a stretch of green field. It’s no wonder that Tim returns again and again to this bucolic setting and atmosphere of innocence in his photographs. “I am very childlike in my feelings about things, and the way I look at the world,” he admits.
Tim started taking photographs as a teenager, after moving to Devon with his parents and brother. “I think I was interested in pictures from the day I was born,” he says. “I always loved the illustrations in children’s books more than the stories themselves.” Photography was, and is, “a way to communicate. I could see things in my head that I wanted to express, but I didn’t know how to communicate them if they didn’t exist. It was a mood I could feel, or a mixture of a memory and an imaginary thing that I wanted to…” He trails off, fumbling for a way to phrase it. “My mother is a cook, and photography is like cooking in a way – a bit of a memory with a bit of something that you’ve seen on a film, together with something you’ve read in a book, and then a certain colour. And you mix it up to create a new picture.” Photography was simply the most effective way of presenting the things that were in Walker’s mind: “It is a mirror of yourself, it’s your point of view.” The technical side of it has never interested him. “All the light-metering, the precision… It’s such a fleeting moment you’re trying to capture, it gets in the way.”
It’s surprising, maybe, that Tim got into fashion photography at all. “So many people told me, ‘you’re not cut out for fashion, you’re not the right personality.’ I wasn’t; I am not. But the point of fashion is that you take the picture you want. And fashion is the only photography that allows fantasy, and I’m a fantasist. I love beautiful clothes, but I don’t give a monkey’s what’s on the catwalks.” He respects fashion for its imagination, and for what it enhances or inspires in his pictures, but he doesn’t want to live in that world. Most photographers, he vouches, would say the same. “Was Guy Bourdin really interested in fashion?” he asks.
After a formative internship working with Conde Nast’s Cecil Beaton archives (Beaton’s work, with its Englishness and flights of fancy, is that to which Tim is most frequently compared), and a “very happy, free” time studying for a photography degree at Exeter University, Walker went to work for Richard Avedon in New York. The experience was eye-opening, not least because it exposed the photographers’ very different working methods and, in particular, Avedon’s practice of using psychological tricks to get his shot. “You know the picture of Mrs Simpson and Edward,” Walker asks, “where they’re looking worriedly into the camera? Avedon knew Wallis Simpson was obsessed with pugs, so he said, ‘On my way to the studio this morning a taxi ran over a dog.’ He then described how the dog’s head got ripped open by the wheel, and all the while he was taking their picture.” Walker shakes his head, marvelling.
Tim returned to Devon from New York after a year to help look after his father, who was by that time, suffering from terminal leukemia. It was an emotional homecoming. “It was that surreal, cartoon-like spring when everything is green and I remember thinking, this is the most beautiful place in the world. I spent a lot of time venting my emotional side in photography.” He took black-and-white pictures of the things around him: sheep in the fields, twinkling grannies in rose-print housecoats, his house and family – all now familiar Walker tropes. By 1996, aged 26, he had a portfolio ready to show Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers. “He had a very personal point of view; also, an extremely tender one,” she says. “My attraction to his work had very little to do with fashion, in fact. It was about the spirit of his pictures.”
Lucinda suggested he photograph Iris Palmer at his mother’s house in Dorset. “She just told me to photograph her as if she was one of my old ladies or the farmer next door,” he says. “I was terrified. I’d only ever shot in black and white. Colour was too real, I didn’t know what I was doing with it.” The pictures are lovely, all teenage moodiness and Mitford-girl-goes-wild-in-the-country: Iris, pale and petulant, playing with her brother in a hay bale: Iris sitting in an old bathtub: a close-up of a nametag sewn into a boarding-school blazer. The shoot seems familiar because the idea of Englishness it portrays has been so parodied since, but at the time it was Tim’s very own quiet revolution.
Englishness has always been at the heart of Tim’s work, but he is keen to emphasise that his interpretation of it is anything but twee. His is an Englishness of “bus stops, Exeter St Davids, Victoria Wood as the lard-covered Channel-crossing swimmer, a friend who refers to me as ‘Poppet’, Little Chef roadside restaurants, kindness, Marmite and Mandy Rice-Davies,” he laughs. Certain areas of the country have become talismanic for him, and he often shoots in Devon, Dorset or Northumberland, where he and Jacob have bought a house and where his favourite location – a crumbling estate owned by his friend and willing accomplice Mrs April Potts – is to be found. His photographs are nostalgic for an England that now mainly exists in books and old newsreels. But rather than being backward-looking, his work is a bridge between past and present.
“I like capturing stuff that is disappearing – that’s the point of photography,” he explains. “What I am photographing is an imaginary place that never existed, but is connected to something that has already been.” Does he view the past as a better place? “I’m not saying through the nostalgia of my pictures that everything was better before,” he says carefully. “I’m trying to take a timeless picture that doesn’t belong to any era.” And anyway, he stresses, they’re supposed to be fanciful. “I know the world that I am painting is not a reality. It is a whim, an entertainment to provoke something in people, whether as escapism or relief. I think that is very valid.”
This feeling in Tim’s photography, of being outside time, is enhanced by the locations – the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea, a lake in rural Russia, a set of peeling rooms – and the spell binding sets and props dreamt up by Tim and his set designers Shona Heath, Simon Costin and Andy Hillman. Few photographers have such a feeling for place, or his extraordinary attention to detail. Every corner of a Tim Walker frame is crammed with things to look at: spilt pearls, playing cards, polka dots that have come loose from a dress and slipped on to the floor. “When you’re a fashion photographer everything is contrived from the start,” Tim says. “Nothing is real. So what you’re trying to do in this fake world is to make a real moment happen. Being on location lends itself to creating a reality out of a fakery.” In this context models become actors; they add authenticity even if what they are acting out is pure fantasy. “I find playing a role for the camera much more liberating than trying to stand in front of a white backdrop and pose,” says Karen Elson, who played a doll in Tim’s most recent Vogue shoot. “If I believe in the story, it makes me feel free.”
Tim, says Shona Heath, would rather spend his photographer’s fee on great sets and props than on a first-class air fare. “You’re not surrounded by production people, assistants bringing lattes. That’s not the way Tim works. He’s completely self-motivated, works incredibly hard and has really high standards,” she says. “He lives a very frugal life,” agrees Vogue fashion director Kate Phelan. “He’s really just interested in taking the best photograph he possibly can.”
That’s not to say Walker’s shoots are easy (23 suitcases full of animal masks and armour lugged to a remote Russian island by boat; horses in bedrooms; caravans in hallways – it’s no surprise director Werner Herzog is his personal hero), but his dedication and enthusiasm are infectious. “I’d go anywhere with him,” says Kate Phelan simply. It’s a sentiment echoed by all his colleagues.
“He absorbs new countries – every inch, the colour, the people – and we all get swept up in his enthusiasm,” says make-up artist Samantha Bryant, who remembers photographing Lily Cole with Tim in a dilapidated palace in India. “We disturbed a hornet’s nest in one room and we were all screaming and wrapping ourselves in bits of couture as protection. As we fled, hundreds of bats flew over our heads, their wings touching our hair – this kind of thing would only happen on one of Tim’s shoots.”
For Tim, adventure – climbing mountains in Papua New Guinea for 10 hours on his day off, for instance – is vital. “It’s when you feel alive,” he says. Moreover, the stories of his expeditions, the questions his pictures provoke (“How did they paint that elephant?”) imbue his images with added magic. The fact that they are clearly not computer-manipulated makes them all the more affecting.
To create a photograph that invites wonder, something wondrous often has to happen. Magic is a slippery thing to define, dispersing into dust motes in the afternoon sun if examined too closely. But it’s this quality that elevates Tim’s pictures from being merely pretty to becoming works of art. Describing his favourite shot, of Lily Cole standing on a fish-hook over what looks like a lake (but is in fact a puddle), he says, “I don’t want to sound mystical but sometimes when you take a picture – when the sets are in place – then something takes over and leads you. It’s this sense of extraordinary luck and chance. The shoot is blessed and charmed, and you make pictures that you couldn’t in your wildest dreams have imagined. That is the magic of photography.”
Or of the photographer. “I wouldn’t be surprised”, giggles Bryant, “if one day he said, ‘I’m doing a shoot on the moon. Want to come?’”. “You know what? I’d go with him in a flash.”