What happens when you invite one of the world’s greatest fashion photographers to roam and rummage for inspiration in the archives of a world-class museum? Three years in the making, with access not only to the artefacts in the 145 public galleries but also the private store rooms, the curators and conservation studios, subterranean passageways and even the seven-acre roof, has culminated in Tim Walker: Wonderful Things – the largest ever exhibition of his work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “It’s been incredible, like enrolling at some kind of magical university, studying history of art at Hogwarts,” says Walker, who has made 150 new images inspired by his ﬁndings, from a luminous stained-glass window to a jewelled snuffbox. “Imagine corridors of boxes – ancient boxes within boxes – and you open them up wearing white gloves and discover Elizabeth I’s wallet; the actual wallet that she used – not that she probably handled much dosh – and it’s extraordinary! All these objects, they’re charged with history, and it just sets your belly barometer off. It’s spectacular, like ﬁnding a key!”
For those who don’t yet know Tim Walker’s work, often seen beaming out of the pages of glossy magazines, he creates epic dreamscapes that involve anything from a snowstorm inside a stately home and a 30ft-high doll crashing through a forest, to a model writhing in a water-ﬁlled tank, reclining in a glass bubble, or riding side-saddle through the sky on a lion. “I can visualise them in my head just like the next person might dream about them on the bus, the difference is that I can articulate these parallel worlds by working with talented set designers and fashion designers, amazing models, performers and artists,” he says.
You might imagine that the visionary photographer grew up in the kind of fairytale utopia he regularly brings to life, but he was born in ’70s Guildford, England, and raised in the Dorset countryside, with not much to do except daydream. “It was very boring, so I guess I just resorted to an inner world. That’s where a lot of my lunatic ideas come from – complete daydreaming,” he muses today, in his studio in London’s East End. He ﬁrst picked up a camera aged 11, when he stole his brother’s Boots Instamatic, and one of his ﬁrst subjects was bluebells. “That twoweek window when they come out and this whole ﬁeld of dead leaves is transformed into a shocking sea of blue.”
Walker was always good at drawing, so he went to Exeter Art College, where he took up photography “once I got over the obstacle of mastering the technicality of a camera”. He graduated in 1994, moved to New York, and became the assistant of the legendary fashion photographer, Richard Avedon. “It was like being in the army; he was so ﬁerce, a sort-of dictator, very demanding because he gave his life to his craft.” Shoots were the equivalent of military battles to be conquered at all cost, but it was there Walker learned from Avedon how to communicate with his subjects. “When [Avedon] was shooting a Versace campaign, he wasn’t just shooting two supermodels in black suits and white shoes; he’d say to them, ‘You are two blackbirds on a branch of a tree, ﬁghting over the worm on the ﬂoor,” and they’d inhabit these characters, wave their arms like wings and that became an incredible fashion picture.” He says people need a character to play, because it gives them a map of how to be photographed – but it only really works if you really believe in it; if you’re fake or disingenuous it can all go wrong. What you’re looking for is a truthful gesture, capturing and revealing the truth in someone.” Likewise, he never relies on digital wizardry when shooting; all his sets are real. That could mean his set-design collaborators (“they’re like family”) might be asked to recreate couturier Charles Frederick Worth’s atelier, complete with models in gowns fabricated from paper. Or a giant, fully articulated doll, whose Shirley Temple ringlets are made from 18 wigs, and lacy socks from hundreds of old vests.
In the V&A exhibition, designed by Walker’s longtime collaborator Shona Heath, 10 evocative room sets display the giant photographs alongside the object that inspired it – in the interior of a burned-out cathedral you’ll see the 16th-century stained-glass window that prompted Walker to create his Alice Through The Looking Glass-like interpretation. In a room dressed as a stark white photographic studio, you’ll see his take on Aubrey Beardsley’s provocative pen-and-ink illustrations in the form of a model in shiny black vinyl, who looks as if she’s ripped through the pages of a book. In the exhibition is a wall of his favourite muses – Kristen McMenamy, Kate Moss, Grayson Perry, Karen Elson and Tilda Swinton. “The more lunatic and wackadoo the place we create, the more Tilda can put into it; she becomes it, believes it, wills it through her power as a performer.” It’s the same process, he says, no matter who he’s shooting, be it David Attenborough (clutching his prized elephant-bird egg) or Margaret Atwood. “She walked into the styling room and said, ‘That’s all great, but we need a yellow glove with that, and have you got a feather? And also an egg?’ We didn’t have any eggs, so she said, ‘Well, there’s a shop around the corner; go get one!’ Some people have their own story to tell, which is wonderful.”
Is it different shooting famous people? “I’d say pretty much everyone I work with, there is something I love about them. For me, it’s fundamental. Love is everything in photography.” Is there anyone he hasn’t yet managed to capture through his lens? “The Queen, of course. I’d love to shoot her. There are myriad people out there – famous, non-famous – anyone I get to photograph, it’s a celebration.” More than anything else, it’s this interest in people that drives him. “That’s what photography is to me. It’s like having blind dates with all these people you’re curious about.”
Photos: Tim Walker Studio