British photographer Tim Walker is the subject of a stunning retrospective at Somerset House supported by Mulberry, and an accompanying coffee table book, featuring over 175 inspirational images, collages and snapshots.
Friendly, articulate and really rather brilliant, you depart a meeting with Tim Walker with your head swimming with ideas. There’s something magical about him. He believes in people – and has a wonderful knack of street casting young boys and girls on the brink of something exciting in their lives. He also believes in fantasy, which is of course what he is most famous for. From propeller planes made out of baguettes, to life-size spitfires and pastel coloured Persian cats, there’s nothing too weird or wonderful to feature in Tim Walker’s world. “My only rule is you must photograph what you love,” Tim explains over a cup of tea in his studio, located in a converted stable block just off Bethnal Green Road. At his feet lies Stig, the American bulldog cross Tim rescued after finding him chained outside his house, while scattered around him are a treasure trove of props – a pair of giant bunny ears worn by Alber Elbaz in a 2009 portrait, a giant orb and a framed picture of Malgosia Bela, in a field, dressed as a boxing bunny.It’s easy to fall in love with Tim Walker’s photographs. His landscapes, filled with colourful balloons, giant woodland creatures, spaceships, fairy wings and flowers have something of the English eccentric about them, and take you back to childhood when life was simple, and dreams came thick and free. “I was fortunate enough to have a very happy childhood,” Tim smiles, a twinkle in his eye. “In many ways it was idyllic, and a lot of my work is a return to that innocence and naivety.” Born in Guildford in 1970, Tim first fell in love with fashion photography whilst undertaking work experience cataloguing the Cecil Beaton archive at Vogue. It was the forming of a relationship with the magazine that has gone on to shape his entire working life. “It was fundamental in helping me understand the history of fashion photography,” Tim explains. On finishing, he studied photography at Exeter University, before moving to New York to assist Richard Avedon. Today Tim quotes Beaton, Avedon and Irving Penn as three of the biggest influencers on his career. “I admire all three for their elegance, playfulness and for perpetuating the mystery of the feminine gesture,” he explains. “In the future I hope new photographers will be more like them and go, ‘Fuck the credits, I’m going to take the pictures. Like it or lump it.’” In a world where everything is instant, the lengths Tim goes to create one of his fantastical images is astounding. Working solely on film, all his extravagant sets are built entirely from scratch. “Digital makes things too easy,” he says. “When you work on film it puts a limit on your imagination and that’s healthy.” One of his most ambitious shoots to date, ‘Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops’ for W in 2010, saw Tim and his team scout over 30 English country cottages before finding one that agreed to not only have its brickwork painted a dreamy buttercup yellow, but its entire garden too. Tim and his team spent the day painting everything dazzling yellow, but that night the heavens opened and all their hard work was washed away. While other photographers may have called it a day, not Tim. He duly got up the next morning and did it all over again. Tim’s dedication to craftsmanship doesn’t end there. In January this year, Tim collaborated with stylist Jacob K on a stunning shoot for Italian Vogue, starring Lindsey Wixson and a giant doll. The doll (made out of polystyrene) had to be dismantled limb by limb and rebuilt for every shot, a labour-intensive process, but a process integral for Tim. “I wasn’t just going to Photoshop the doll in,” he says. “The most important thing to me is to be honest, to be a rebel in my own way. Photography is a mirror. If you are not genuine about what you think is beautiful, you will never get anywhere.” Tim is fortunate enough to work with three incredibly talented set-designers – Shona Heath, Simon Costin and Andy Hillman. “I couldn’t create these fantasy landscapes without their expertise,” he informs. “They bring my imagination to life. Everything’s made from scratch and held together with gaffa tape, staple guns and glue guns. Nothing’s Photoshopped.”No fairytale world would be complete without a fairytale cast, and Tim goes to great lengths to ensure he works with models who are able to inhabit his theatrical roles. “Casting is incredibly important to me,” he confirms, “I need my models to be silent movie actors; they have to inhabit the environment we’ve created,” and in the day of identikit models, he relishes strong girls with personality and charisma. So who are his role models? “That’s a hard question,” he replies, momentarily lost for words. “But I’d have to say Simon Costin for his never-ending sunny outlook, April Potts for her taste and my dog for constantly living in the present and for his insatiable appetite for relaxing!”In many ways, Story Teller marks the end of one chapter for Tim and the start of something new. “I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with portraiture,” he reveals, “of capturing someone’s personality in one shot.” In the exhibition, a beautiful portrait of Vivienne Westwood, holding a bunch of long-stemmed roses, is a perfect case in point. With many of Tim’s extraordinary props also on display, including the giant doll from Italian Vogue and a life-size replica of a Spitfire fighter plane, Story Teller celebrates nearly twenty years of groundbreaking work. “When I look through the viewfinder and everything comes together, when I’ve created a window to something magical, that’s when it’s all worthwhile,” Tim concludes. “Photography’s my passion in life, I’m totally obsessed with it.”
Tim Walker: Story Teller is open at Somerset House from 18 October 2012 – 27 January 2013. Supported by Mulberry.