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.

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