As a new show dedicated to the work of the legendary fashion photographer opens at the V&A this weekend, we sit down with its curator Susanna Brown
Tim Walker started his career at 24. It was the mid-90s and he was assisting Richard Avedon in his studio. Now, almost 25 years later, Walker is regarded as a legend in his own right. A force of nature in the fashion world, he has shot for the likes of Dazed, AnOther Man and many (many) more.
While much of his work is recognisable for its otherworldly and idiosyncratic nature, to call him a fashion photographer feels inaccurate. His work stretches far beyond the realms of fashion, landing in a beautifully curated other dimension. Walker is a story-teller, and fashion is the vehicle which drives his surreal and captivating narratives. From Hieronymous Bosch-inspired Garden of Earthly Delights sets, to recreating Alice in Wonderland in with Duckie Thot as as Alice herself and Ru Paul as the Queen of Hearts, Walker's imagination knows no bounds.
Opening this weekend, new exhibition Wonderful Things steps into the mind of Tim Walker. Four years in the making, this show is far more than a chronological retrospective of the photographer's work. Instead, it peers deep into his imagination, exploring his various inspirations.
“it's not purely about fashion, and that's what makes it so special. He's able to create stunning, spectacular pictures, but also subtly connect to the pertinent issues of our time” – Susanna Brown
Held at the V&A, the photographer's iconic images are placed in decorative rooms which reflect and expand on the themes the photos explore. In one space, intimate disposables taken at Glastonbury sit alongside Vogue editorials, while, at other end of the room, portraits of Frank Ocean taking a selfie, David Attenborough holding a dinosaur egg, and Joanna Lumley lighting a mouthful of cigarettes, show off Walker’s unique ability to create a narrative even in the most deceptively simple images. Elsewhere, nudes including the likes of Beth Ditto peer down from the walls, with other spaces are designed to look like 80s living rooms and photography studios.
The point is to not only see the images but to step inside them. “I don't think we would want to approach it in a traditional way,” Susanna Brown, the show's curator, explains. Detailing what makes Walker different from so many other fashion photographers, she says it's his ability to conjure up other worlds while still rooting it in the here and now. “I think so much of Tim's work is about make-believe. But, it's not purely about beauty, it's not purely about fashion, and that's what makes it so special. He's able to create stunning, spectacular pictures, but also subtly connect to the pertinent issues of our time.”
Here, we sit down with Brown as she explains why this was never going to be a conventional exhibition, where the legendary photographer finds his inspiration, and why now?
WALKER IS MORE THAN A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER
“It's funny, but I never think of Tim as a fashion photographer. I think of him as just an incredibly creative person and an artist who weaves in fantastical narratives. Of course, he's very knowledgable about fashion and clothes. He loves knitting, embroidery, and is very interested in the textures of things. But I have to say we didn't spend a lot of time talking about fashion in isolation. I think for him the fashion industry and the magazines are like Renaissance art patrons that allow him to create the pictures his mind imagines and the dream worlds he wants to build in front of the camera. He's used that metaphor before, the idea of fashion itself as a benefactor, as a patron to the artist, and I think it's a very good metaphor.”
THIS WAS NEVER GOING TO BE YOUR TYPICAL EXHIBITION
“I don't think we would want to approach it in a traditional way. I don't think we would imagine this as a kind of conventional retrospective exhibition, or a chronological survey exhibition. It should be something that speaks about the V&A as an important source of inspiration to creative people.”
WALKER MADE WORKS SPECIFICALLY FOR THE SHOW, AS INSPIRED BY THE V&A’S ARCHIVES
“Tim spent a year researching our collection. He explored the collection, found the objects he loved, and then embarked on the photoshoots inspired by those objects. He chose things like a photo of the Bayeux Tapestry and a shoot would explode out of that object. The treasures from the V&A were always the starting point, rather than me looking at the pictures and saying, we've got something in the V&A that would go with this.”
TILDA SWINTON’S RELATION TO A 19TH-CENTURY POET WAS A MAJOR FOCUS FOR THE SHOW
“Some of the clothing from our fashion collection belonged to Edith Sitwell, there's also a beautiful portrait of her by Cecil Beaton, one of Tim's favourite photographers, and a painting by Edith Dawson of her gorgeous conservatory of plants. From finding those Tim explained ‘One of my longstanding collaborators and my muses is Tilda Swinton, and she's related to Edith Sitwell, so why don't we do something with Tilda embodying the spirit of Edith Sitwell, and the eclecticism and the beauty of Edith?’ Sitwell was a very striking woman, but she certainly wasn't a conventionally beautiful woman. What Tim loves about Sitwell is that she really owned her weirdness and kind of revelled in her difference to everyone else.”
WIDER SOCIAL ISSUES ARE A BIG THEME
“It's not just about fashion. It's not just about the clothes. Yes, the clothes are a very important part of building a picture and building a narrative, but there's so much more going on. It doesn't jump out at you immediately, but when you spend time with the pictures, you realise a lot of the issues Tim is engaging with. These new pictures look at very pertinent contemporary issues, things like nuclear energy; the wastefulness and consumption of the mainstream fashion industry and fast fashion; themes of sexuality and representation of diversity in the media. There are lots of political and sociological themes, and that's what makes it very special. Tim has the ability to create stunning, spectacular pictures, but also connect to those issues in a subtle way. You know he's not a documentary photographer, but he is still engaged with the real world, beyond high fashion, or beyond couture.”
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is at the V&A from 21 September 2019 to 8 March 2020 vam.ac.uk