Through the Looking Glass: Tim Walker’s Fantastical Visions

As a survey of his work opens at the V&A in London, the fashion photographer discusses the balance between beauty and ugliness; light and dark; truth and imagination

Tim Walker’s whimsical photographs are instantly recognizable. Think of the giant plastic doll with golden ringlets and rosy cheeks about to step on the supermodel Lindsey Wixson in a 2012 shoot for Vogue Italia, or Karlie Kloss in 2010, all in black, presiding over a cracked Humpty Dumpty in the middle of a Sussex wheat field. His fantastical dreamscapes feature unicorns, swan boats and pastel-coloured Persian cats, while his intimate portraits have captured everyone from Helena Bonham Carter to Alexander McQueen. Walker was 25 when he shot his first story for Vogue and, since then, his ambitious images have graced the pages of every leading glossy magazine – as well as the walls of many major museums. 

A new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’, brings together photographs, films and installations, as well as a new series inspired by objects in the V&A’s collection. Chloë Ashby spoke to him at his east London studio about artistic influences, fairy tales and the fine line between truth and theatricality.

Tim Walker, Illuminations, Sara Grace Wallerstedt,  London, 2018. Courtesy: © the artist and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chloë Ashby Where do your ideas come from?

Tim Walker Everywhere, and they merge with one another. I could read something in a book or see it in a film, then the idea crystallizes when I see something else on the street or wandering around a gallery.

CA How do you know when an idea is worthy of a photograph?

TW I rely on instinct – my internal belly barometer. You just know when something is the key that will open the door to a series of photos.

CA What inspires you artistically?

TW It’s constantly changing because as you lead a longer life you read more, see more, experience more. With this exhibition, the new series was specifically inspired by the V&A – all the ideas have been borne from its archive and they are the illuminating catalysts. I had an inkling about what half of the objects were, but the other half I’d never heard of. It was a privilege and an education.

CA How did you choose what to include? 

TW It’s difficult to edit a year-long journey spent meeting all the curators and searching through different departments. I filled up two big files with objects that really interested me and research on them, and in the end some things translated directly into a photograph and others merged. I wanted to cover the many aspects of the V&A: metalworks, stained-glass windows, tapestry, painting, 2D, 3D.

Tim Walker, Pen & Ink, Duckie Thot, Aubery's shadow, London, 2017. Courtesy: © the artist and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

CA How do you navigate theatricality, as opposed to the documentary or truthful quality of photography?

TW A lot of the images I make are artificial from the start. They’re fabricated ideas. Take Rollo Hesketh-Harvey in an airplane made of bread. It’s artificial – he doesn’t fly the plane. But there’s a truth in the picture through serendipity. The fact that the clouds were rolling up over the hills and mirror the clouds of flour on top of the bread, and that we were shooting in a field that could well have made the grain that went into the bread. These are things you don’t think about. His gesture, too, is real – his smile is truth. It’s something that happens unexpectedly on the day – often a mistake – that injects truth into a picture. 

CA And you always go with those mistakes?

TW It’s ideal when everything collapses. If a photograph was just as you imagined it to be it would be a very dead photograph. I think pictures succeed from holding a fair few bags of truth, even fantasy pictures. It’s serendipity that creates harmony graphically.

CA What about portraiture – is that more about fact than fantasy? 

TW It’s very different. I wouldn’t necessarily put someone I want a portrait of in a fantasy environment because their presence can become diluted. Instead, I might strip back the baroque and have just a white backdrop. That way, you’re merely left with their humour, or whatever it is we want to remember them for. Tilda Swinton is incredibly powerful at animating an inanimate situation and bringing life and truth into the artificial.

CA What about the audience, do you could consider their role?

TW When you’re working publicly, you’re well aware that people are looking at your imagery and with that comes an immense amount of responsibility to represent the infinite variety of humanity. You can’t do it all at once, but I think as long as you’re aware of it, and you want to celebrate age, different body shapes and types – that’s a justification for being there. By only engaging with what I love and believe worthy of celebration, I would only be dealing with half of my responsibility. Having said that, I believe in all the people I photograph, or they represent something missing that hasn’t yet been celebrated. 

CA What draws you to fairy tales?

TW I think fairy tales are in us as living things. They exist everywhere – there are lots that you’ll encounter on your way home. And what’s so clever about fairy tales is they always deal in equal measure in good and bad, beauty and ugliness, light and dark. They explain that both are just as valuable. Surrealist art is a kind of fairy tale too.

Tim Walker, Why not be oneself? Tilda Swinton, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

CA Is there a line between art and fashion photography? 

TW I think anything that you genuinely engage with in a passionate way is art. If you look at fashion as an industry, the vast majority is forgettable commerce. But there’s a small percentage that we will always remember. For example, the wedding dress made in 1967 by Cristóbal Balenciaga, which looks like someone has had a jug of milk poured over them. For me, looking at that and photographing it is a harmony of the senses. It’s overwhelmingly photogenic and sublime. That’s what I live for.

CA Do you believe that political uncertainty fuels creativity?

TW I do. It’s interesting looking at the V&A’s collection, which covers such a vast time period – the bubonic plague, the great fire of London, wars, the moon landing. You’re looking at lots of tricky, politically memorable times. Dark times, maybe. And then you look at the resulting articulation of beauty. If everything in life is about balance, I think when times are darker, art is lighter – brighter, louder.

‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ opens at V&A Museum, London, UK, on 21 September and runs until 8 March 2020.

Main image: Tim Walker, Box of Delights, James Spencer, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Chloë Ashby is an associate editor at Monocle and a freelance arts writer based in London.

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