Interview with Tim Walker
The White Review, November 2012
By Karl Smith
‘I’m not so motivated by fashion and brands,’ explains Tim Walker – one of the world’s leading fashion photographers. Given that Walker’s work is most frequently found between the glossy covers of high-end fashion magazines – Love, i-D and of course the myriad international imprints of Vogue, to name but a few – this statement makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The incongruence is only exacerbated in context of our meeting at Somerset House to mark the opening of his Mulberry-sponsored exhibition (and recently published book) Story Teller. Collating the dramatic dreamscapes of Walker’s photographs, not just in the large format pictorial form to which photography is so often consigned in gallery spaces but rather in an immersive and tactile pseudo-reality enabled in part by the inclusion of the props and design that set them apart, Story Teller is Walker in microcosm: a bridge between two worlds.
The transcendence of Walker’s work – which cannot be confined to, or labeled solely as a product of the fashion industry – is marked by its appreciation in the wider field of photographic arts. While it is true that the 42 year old Briton’s work has been featured more than that of any other photographer, almost month by month, in the pages of Vogue, there are also images from his portfolio hanging as permanent fixtures at the Victoria & Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2008 he staged his first major solo exhibition, in conjunction with the publication of his first book Pictures, at The Design Museum and in 2009 received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. Indeed, Walker’s work is more than the sum of its parts. Like the artist Mark Rothko, whose expansive canvases leave room for the viewer’s thoughts to fill, the photographer’s dreamlike fantasies are a world created not just for himself but for his audience.
And, in that sense, Story Teller is a fitting collection: inclusive and representative of Walker’s extensive body of work and his own personality rather than reflective of the closed-off nature and widespread exclusivity of the fashion industry with which he finds himself partnered in a strange symbiosis. ‘I’m more interested in who’ll let me do what I want to do,’ he says. ‘I think that I’ve always used the fashion industry as a mechanism to fund and support my work; and if they let me and they’re happy then that’s fine.’
Walker himself is a charming and passionate man, eager to discuss his work and happy to go off topic if he senses something interesting. ‘Where do you want to start?’
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — With a back catalogue the size of yours, how do you go about choosing what goes in to an exhibition like Story Teller?
ATIM WALKER — I’m the sort of photographer who won’t ‘finish’ a picture until I’ve taken it as far as I can take it. Every picture I’ve done, these are the best ones obviously, but with every picture you have to force it to be the best picture it can be in the situation that you’re in.
As a photographer, I work on a scale. It is as if there is a sort of bell and some pictures will ring that bell louder than others. I think all the pictures in the Story Teller exhibition are pictures that have always instinctively been valuable to me for one reason or another. They really hit something personally for me. If someone else was going to curate a show of pictures I’ve taken in the last five years they might not choose these – but, for me, this is it. You couldn’t put a good show together unless you did it like that.
But we’ve been working on this for a long time and I think that it’s the portraiture and the idea of portraits in a white space that is interesting me the most now.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — Your last book, The Lost Explorer, seems to have come from a different process. Do you consider that to be a more personal project?
ATIM WALKER — I think that The Lost Explorer is all about film – moving film. As a photographer I think that the two meaningful books are Pictures and Story Teller. But then, as a filmmaker, there’s a totally different process because you’re working with a complete story. When you work as a photographer you’re working more with a mood and with a suggestion of something that enables the viewer to be able to put themselves in to the picture and imagine themselves in that situation: that’s what I think the human element in still photography is. With film you have to be a storyteller and not stray from the story; you have to be very, very specific – that’s what that film was about.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — In that way you’re quite a generous photographer – your work involves the viewer as much as it does the model, or even yourself. What role do you think the viewer plays in the production of an image?
ATIM WALKER — That’s really important to me; so important. They’re all dreams: every picture is a fantasy. Not so much the portraiture, but the set pieces definitely are fantasies and I think that the model or the sitter in a picture is the window for the viewer – for any person – to be a part of that fantasy. It’s me asking them, inviting them, to enter into that, whether it’s a dark and sinister mood or a beautiful fairytale. It’s escapism – that’s what it is.
I’ve always had a very strong sense of entertainment and the need to entertain visually; I find a lot of photography, a lot of visual media, uninclusive because it’s not as obviously entertaining as these pictures are.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — You say that the portraits are less of a fantasy, but the portraits in Story Teller are as entertaining as some of the more elaborate pieces. How important is it that people bring their own character to portraiture and not just the character that you as the photographer impose on them?
ATIM WALKER — You just can’t do that. A portrait that bears no truth about the sitter is irrelevant. When I’m commissioned to do a portrait of someone I do a lot of research about that person; who they are, what they represent, what I am attracted to about that person. With Monty Python, for example, it was always the sense of the clown that fascinated me, and so I entered into a very specific discussion with each of them to talk about that.
When you’re taking a portrait of someone you’re dabbling with their identity – it’s not like a fantasy – and I think that’s a very tender, vulnerable thing. It’s a fragile thing, you have to collaborate with that person. With Monty Python we sat down and talked with them about it and they all agreed that this was the most accurate portrait of them and where they were in their life, being burned out comedians. And we worked it out from there; we said “this is your stage” and the portraits are the result of how they then took that idea and gave something to the camera.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — It’s really a two-way process for portraiture?
ATIM WALKER — I would never enforce something on a sitter in a portrait. The portrait of McQueen was one of the first that really taught me that: I had a very specific idea about him. Andy Hillman the London-based set designer had made a bowtie out of bones and a skull that was meant to fit on his head so that he became sandwiched between a skull and crossbones. But he absolutely wouldn’t do that, he ripped off the bowtie and said, ‘I’m not doing that, but I love the skull and I love smoking.’ In a way that’s a gift because that photograph would be meaningless if he had just done what I’d told him to do – you wouldn’t learn anything about him. He lit up a cigarette, put a cigarette in the skull and put his finger in his mouth and gave that to the camera.
That picture then actually became more valuable because he died two weeks later. It becomes, in a way, a memento mori of a great talent. But even if he were still alive, you really feel his attitude.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — So there is a sense of the subject filtered through your lens?
ATIM WALKER — But you have to have that in portraiture or else it’s irrelevant. In every portrait there’s a story and a meaning that’s a mirror to that person just as much as there’s a mirror to me; I like skulls, I like the ideas in that photograph. It was a halfway meeting point. I think you come to that.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — You mentioned the idea of fantasy. Your photographs are an interesting expression of the fashion industry as a whole – the idea of childlike naivety and a focus on youth and imagination, wrestling with the ideas of being beautiful, elegant and mature. Does that ever come to mind?
ATIM WALKER — Yes – the contradiction. I’ve always been interested in the idea of ‘the authentic’ and authentic beauty. I’ve tried to perpetuate the idea of something that’s more unusually beautiful. That’s been a very conscious decision of mine. I’ve always chosen to work with models who are considered beautiful women – but, say, when I first started to work with Stella Tennant, she was considered a supermodel but she looked like a boy; when I first worked with Karen Elson she was a redhead from Manchester that people described as an alien. Now Karen Elson is considered one of the great beauties of our time, and so is Stella. They hold an authenticity.
The fact that Kate Moss is the same height as you yet she came immediately after a wave of supermodels that were twice the size of you is such an amazing fight to me. I really respect that, and that’s what attracts me to her. Although she’s a proven beauty, it’s incredible that she’s survived. She’s saying to people, ‘I’m a waif from Croydon but I’m still beautiful,’ and now she’s considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Kristen McMenamy; Guinevere Van Seenus; all of these girls – for me they hold a type of beauty that is challenging a cliché.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — Would you say that this contradiction is a focus rather than a problem?
ATIM WALKER — It’s a celebration of the individual. I find the vast majority of fashion is perpetuating something that has already been – particularly with how human beings are portrayed within it. I find it repetitive; I think I’ve always been drawn to something that’s a little more individual.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — You’ve spoken about the mythology of your inspiration, imagining photography as ‘a secret room’ which you may find only when your ‘intentions are true’. How do you bring something like fashion into this idea without compromising its integrity?
ATIM WALKER — Just by never compromising. Every picture in here is taken editorially; they’re all taken from magazines. I’m quite different from other photographers in that I will go to magazines with an idea and say, for example, ‘I’m really interested in the idea of insects in fairy tales, or in a narrative from a children’s book and I want to apply that to Kristen McMenamy in a shoot for LOVE magazine.’ That’s something I’ve always been very specific about, because I couldn’t photograph what I don’t believe in.
Sometimes people come to me and say something like, ‘We’d really love you to do a portrait of McQueen.’ Well, that’s interesting because he’s an interesting character and I can cope with that. But all the narratives are always coming from my point of view – they have to. It is intensely personal which is dangerous to play with. Just as much as the people you’re photographing are vulnerable, I’m vulnerable too because I’m revealing something about myself.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — In that sense, the film booth in the exhibition becomes particularly interesting, especially in an otherwise dark and enclosed space. It feels like you’re stepping into Tim Walker’s head…
ATIM WALKER — I think that that’s the whole point of photography. Traditionally fashion photography has been a very severe private world, and because I’ve had the experience of working with students who are interested in photography I’ve always wanted to open that up and to lay the cards on the table for them. Put it this way: if I’m photographing someone they’re putting their cards on the table and making themselves vulnerable and I think you have to meet them and be vulnerable too in terms of what you’re standing up for. And that’s alright when you’re working for magazines, because you do the shoots and they get published and people forget. But when you’re doing a show that’s wearing its heart on its sleeve like this one is you feel very vulnerable about it. But stuff it. Stuff it, you know?
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — What would you say is the purpose of the film room?
ATIM WALKER — The purpose of the film room is that a lot of students don’t know what a model looks like when she moves: do they move robotically? Do they stay still? Am I capturing lots of pictures? It’s very important to me to reveal how a model, or how an actor or an actress, moves in front of the camera.
You’ve got someone like Tilda Swinton, and we’re in Iceland, outside in a freezing cold plain and she’s pretending to be the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz; I didn’t exhibit the picture because we didn’t have space, but if you look at how she’s moving she’s exactly being that character and for someone to see that in a still then they make that connection or they don’t. Just to see something that’s being frozen on a very grainy piece of Super 8 and to see something move; it’s a revelation.
QTHE WHITE REVIEW — Where, if at all, do you draw the line between what you might call ‘art photography’ and fashion photography?
ATIM WALKER — I find the word ‘art’ a little bit self-congratulatory and I find it uncomfortable: I’m a photographer. Art isn’t decided at the moment it’s made – a lot of people would disagree with me, but I think time decides what art is. The most unlikely things become art. For me to say, ‘This is art photography,’ I’m just not that sort of person; this is photography, this is me playing with a camera. Call it what you will but I would call it photography.
Everyone’s talking about things as art and I think time decides. So I can’t answer that – I think time answers that, or we’ll answer that in the passage of time. I think some photographers have become art, someone like Dianne Arbus, because time has passed and there’s an emotion she’s captured as a photographer. You can call her a photographer but you can also call her an artist. But she would never have called herself an artist. Avedon would never have called himself an artist.