Tim Walker feels miscast in his title as a fashion photographer. He’s famous for his theatrical portraits of celebrities and cats dyed pastel hues, his images of contorted reality spread across the pages of Vogue, WSJ, and W. “I found it very hard to make it work with my persona,” he says of the job, walking round his exhibition in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. “But in another way, I am really perfect for it, because fashion photography is the only place you can tell lies and fantasize.”
Walker is the first living photographer to have a show at the V&A. Home to countless ancient and priceless relics, the institution has drawn in younger and more style-conscious crowds recently with its Dior, McQueen, and Bowie exhibitions. But Walker’s is different; it’s not a retrospective. The first room showcases some examples of his body of work, which spans more than two decades, but that’s all you get to see of his past work.
He was invited to sweep round the museum and pick out a number of items, which he then used as an inspiration to create new images specifically for the exhibition. Both the new works and the artifacts — which include 600-year-old stained-glass windows, a 14th-century prayer book, and a stone fig leaf (once used to protect the statue of David’s cold plaster schlong from Queen Victoria’s prudish eyes) — are displayed with the images they inspired in a series of themed and immersive rooms designed by Walker’s long-term collaborator and set designer Shona Heath. The wall text is written in the first person, as if he were guiding you himself.
Fashion-imagery budgets are not what they once were, forcing many young photographers to adopt a more bare-bones approach, but Walker — who worked as Richard Avedon’s fourth assistant in the early ’90s, before getting a job archiving Cecil Beaton’s work — still commands the resources to create images that are fantastical and playful, a strange and joyful world for both subject and viewer. His portraits give the sitter agency to display their real self; they feel otherworldly and, simultaneously, very real.
Walker, too, seems somewhat otherworldly. Describing his work, he chooses his words carefully, punctuating them with pauses. It’s easy to become drawn into his universe. “I take photographs to dance away sadness,” he says. Aesthetically, his uplifting and celebratory images reflect this sentiment rather than act as a document of our times.
In a recent shot, Margaret Atwood looks sage and witchy, sitting under a cloud of frizzy gray hair, holding a giant quill. “She choreographed the image herself,” says Walker. “She picked out the clothes and said she wanted hair extensions. We didn’t have a feather for her to hold, so we plucked one off a hat.”
Unlike other photographers, Walker cannot be defined by the people he shoots. “The more potent the individual, the better.” This thinking excludes no one. “Everyone has ‘a something,’” he says. Walker is interested in the individual, and the story they have to tell — a top model is as exciting to him as a musician, a dancer, a street-cast kid with a great look. There are people he has worked with repeatedly: Tilda Swinton, Karen Elson, and Kate Moss, people who have an innate ability to morph into his dream world.
British supermodel Edie Campbell has worked with Walker on countless occasions over the past 12 years. From nuzzling a (real) lion to transforming into Dalí-esque chess pieces, she says she’s found his creative process surprisingly easy. “He will tell a story and a narrative and explain to you in detail how he got to this idea, and who the character is that you are inhabiting. Because the world he takes you to is so wonderful, it’s incredibly easy to stay there and occupy the mood entirely.”
The exhibition in the V&A houses ten rooms, each centered around an object, plus a room of portraits that act as an introduction, and a Chapel of Nudes. “They are exciting because the images aren’t confused or dictated by fashion,” says Heath. “So there is a purity of image.”
The new images in the show all feature couture fashion; each image is credited accordingly, but really it’s just a vessel to Tim’s world; it’s dressing up and performing. “Fashion is such a lie, and it astounds me that people don’t see that aspect of it. Not all lies are negative; there are some that are entertaining.” Looking at his joyful images means that you leave the drudgery of the everyday world. “I make images merely to nourish myself. I think about what a picture will mean in a responsible way, but also I hope that people would take the love and joy I put into an image and be inspired by something that is not the phone in their hand.” Walker is a rarity — one of the few photographers to eschew social media. “I think the phone is great in so many ways, but we have reach obsessive levels with it and that stops people talking, looking.”
You could say that all images are in some way fantastical these days, thanks to filters and Photoshop. Have we lost all honesty in the way we portray ourselves? “I think a lot of people don’t want to look in the mirror and see how they really are,” he answers. “I think people are scared. Photography and culture have reached a ridiculous and unreachable tone of perfection that is nothing to do with being a human. People no longer see beauty in their good, bad, and ugly self.”
At the end of the show are two 12-foot-high replicas of his sketchbooks, one with the show’s titular quote scrawled on. As Egyptologist Howard Carter opened Tutankhamen’s tomb for the first time, he famously said, “Look up, look up, for there are other wonderful things.” It’s the entire sentiment of the show — the idea that inspiration for joy can be taken from anything, anywhere, small or large. Although Walker presents his work as photography, he observes the world through these journals. They are, in a way, the most precious and telling part of the exhibit. “It would be terrifying if we forgot about the world around us,” he adds.
“Tim Walker: Wonderful Things” is at the V&A from September 21 to March 8, 2020.