The undisputed home of fashion photography is the high-gloss magazine. You know the ones: they cost GB£10, are full of advertisements and perfumed pages, whose aromas begin their assault before you’ve even cracked the spine, and they’re too thick and unwieldy to tuck discreetly into your handbag – which is probably why your subscription comes with a ‘free’ tote. But, once you’ve made your way inside these hefty tomes, you are often treated to some of the most exciting and imaginative photography going.
This is a fact not lost on exhibition curators. While still primarily a commercial enterprise, fashion photography has often been the subject of major museum shows. Yet, once the transition has been made from magazine page to gallery wall, the role of this genre shifts. In the exhibition space, fashion photography is no longer about promoting a brand or even showcasing beautiful garments. It’s about spotlighting the photographer-cum-artist (think Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton) or, occasionally, about spotlighting the model-cum-celebrity in the pictures (Naomi Campbell, Iman, Kate Moss).
All of this is turned somewhat on its head, however, in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’, which runs until 8 March 2020. Walker is unquestionably a superstar in the world of fashion photography, having worked for 25 years for the British, Italian and American editions of Vogue, as well as for W and i-D, and many of the subjects featured in his photographs – Sir David Attenborough, Cate Blanchett, Björk, David Hockney, Solange Knowles – are unquestionably famous, but it is neither the renown of the photographer nor that of his subjects which takes centre stage in this show.
The exhibition – the largest of Walker’s work to date – features an opening section that focuses on the photographer’s broader oeuvre. In the first room, 100 photographs from a range of projects, both older and more recent, provide viewers who might be unfamiliar with Walker’s work a chance to see the surreal inventiveness for which he is known. The photographs here are separated into thematic groups, helping alleviate the fatigue that frequently sets in when viewers are bombarded with an overwhelming number of images, hung in endless, repeating rows. One group includes a collection of images devoted to the photographer’s familiar ‘Muses’, such as Grayson Perry and Tilda Swinton. Another, ‘The Handshake’, features a series of distinctive celebrity portraits, including Joanna Lumley ‘lights up’ (2016), in which the actress, channelling Patsy, her character from the 1990s television series Absolutely Fabulous, attempts to light an impossible number of cigarettes, packed tightly into her mouth at once. With the exception of giant, three-dimensional paint drips spilling from the tops of the walls, this section – featuring texts written by Walker himself – is as close to a traditional celebration of photographer and famous subject as this exhibition gets.
From here, viewers are led to the show’s main section, which is anchored by ten new photographic productions, each inspired by a different object from the V&A’s extensive collection – from Aubrey Beardsley drawings and 16th-century stained-glass windows to jewelled snuffboxes and a pair of golden shoes worn by Edith Sitwell. Each new work is presented within its own elaborate room, which also contains the object that inspired it. Designed by Walker’s long-time collaborator, Shona Heath, these sets are as fundamental to the exhibition as Walker’s photographs. They transform the typical gallery-going experience of filing respectfully past pictures on walls or objects in vitrines into an entirely more fantastical affair that allows viewers to journey through a series of self-contained worlds, imagining themselves inside, rather than just passively observing, Walker’s pictures.
One room, ‘Illuminations’, has been turned into a burnt-out cathedral, in which a stained-glass panel, Tobias and Sara on their Wedding Night (c.1520), depicts a newly married couple asleep in bed, a small dog curled up at their feet. Inspired by the panel’s strong, flat colours – red, blue and yellow – Walker’s images also respond to details such as the curtain and bedspread fabrics, and the odd, almost-vertical angle at which the couple are positioned. The dark setting allows the colours in the photographs to dominate, appearing almost to light the space, just as the stained-glass windows would in an otherwise unlit cathedral.
A similarly shadowy set, ‘Lil’ Dragon’, and the works within it take their inspiration from a French snuffbox (c.1745–1800), embellished on all sides with gold mountings, lacquer and delicately inlaid stone and shell. The box is decorated with Chinese motifs – characteristic of much European art and craft during the colonial era – including a dragon in a garden. Both these elements recur in Walker’s images, in which an empress walks her pet dragon through a moonlit garden, as well as in Heath’s set design: a swirling, iridescent tree greets visitors at the entrance while an enormous dragon surveys the scene from above. Created with UV light illuminating models in UV makeup, the results are mesmerising. The colours become exaggerated and luminescent; the gold and crystal jewellery, applied to the models’ faces to mimic the mountings on the snuffbox, shimmers; the dragon, on a lead, glows against the blackness of the background. This layered, three-dimensional effect reflects the appearance of the lacquer and the embedded shell on the box.
Near the end of the exhibition is a small section called ‘The Soldiers of Tomorrow’, which is built around a reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry. The original tapestry dates from the 11th century and depicts the bloody events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, including the 1066 Battle of Hastings. The reproduction (1873–74) was made by fixing a series of Woodburytype photographs (hand-painted by Royal College of Art students) to a fabric backing in order to simulate the textile effect of a tapestry. In Walker’s photographs, the models are clothed in loosely knitted and crocheted garments; the horses and weapons are constructed of cloth; and the scenes are played out within a quilted, fabric enclosure. A great deal of attention is paid, in both the photographs and in the room set, to materiality but there are also touches of humour, where the violence depicted in the tapestry combines with fashion’s at-times inexplicably odd garments: one of the models wears a cardigan of nails, for instance, while others wear crocheted chainmail masks.
Any exhibition that gives as much emphasis to its design as it does to the artworks is vulnerable to the criticism of putting ‘style over substance’, but that does not apply here. Beyond the fun and the spectacle of ‘Wonderful Things’, something more subtle, yet equally important, is happening. The objects Walker plucked from obscurity in the V&A’s collection when he began his research for this project in 2015, are being given new life, telling new stories. Rather than lying neglected in a storage warehouse, they are now front and centre in a major exhibition.
Museums are typically spaces of collection and preservation – none more so than the V&A, with its accumulation of more than two million artefacts spanning 5,000 years. Determined to demonstrate that it is not simply a repository of dusty colonial objects, however, the V&A’s current exhibition programme is allowing contemporary practitioners, such as Walker, to engage with the museum’s vast stores, ensuring that its collection remains dynamic, rather than static; fluid, rather than fusty; and that the meanings of the objects and the stories that they tell are allowed to shift and evolve, influencing the present and the future, instead of just pointing to the past.
To say that ‘Wonderful Things’ is not about Walker and his 25-year career as one of the great fashion photographers would be wrong. It is. But, this show is also about the ‘wonderful things’ of the V&A’s collection, which have not only spawned a collection of wonderful new things but have also themselves been revived, gaining new viewers and new meanings in the process. And, as any glossy fashion magazine will tell you: the best things always come back around – but there’s always something a little different about them.
Main image: Tim Walker, Radhika Nair, fashion: Halpern and Dolce & Gabbana, Pershore, Worcestershire, 2018. Courtesy: © Tim Walker Studio