‘Fashion photographer’ is far too reductive a job title for Tim Walker.
Yes, the 49-year-old Brit photographs models and celebrities. Yes, they are usually wearing designer clothes.
And, yes, those images are reproduced on the glossy pages of some of the most important fashion magazines in the world (think Love, W, and Vogues American, British and Italian).
But while the clothes are an undeniably important element of the imagery Tim Walker creates, they are just one small part of a far greater whole.
V&A Tim Walker Wonderful Things Exhibition Installation View (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Walker’s fashion images can perhaps best be categorised as ‘dreamscapes’ built around fantastical sets courtesy of longtime collaborator Shona Heath and inhabited by a cast of characters both human and animal.
His famous subjects, often rendered almost unrecognisable by Pierrot-like make-up, are captured mid-movement, their momentum thrumming through the frame.
Comparatively, his portraiture is stark and restrained, a direct communication between subject and artist, but no less powerful for it.
With this ability to create a visual narrative, it’s little wonder that Walker was chosen as the subject of a new exhibition by the V&A. Tim Walker: Wonderful Things comes hot off the success of The V&A’s record-breaking Dior retrospective, and will no doubt be this autumn’s hot fashion ticket.
V&A Tim Walker Wonderful Things Exhibition Installation View - 'Retrospective' Section (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The entrance to the exhibition is dappled in rainbow light, after which one immediately enters a stark white room with glossy paint-like drips crowning the walls.
Stark, white… is this the blank canvas Walker’s work needs? Perhaps, but it feels like a cop-out when you consider the ambition with which Walker builds his imagery.
Worry not, for this section provides something of a gentle introduction, a chance to readjust your vision.
The images here form a retrospective and include some of the greatest hits of Walker’s 25-year career: his 1998 Glastonbury images of Kirsty Hume for British Vogue, Karen Elson with Atlas the lion for Love Magazine, as well as various images of frequent collaborators such as Tilda Swinton.
V&A Tim Walker Wonderful Things Exhibition Installation View - 'Box of Delights' Section 4 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Vitrines house the scrapbooks in which Walker pasted his visual references and research – a glimpse of the creative endeavour behind his work.
On the wall opposite are mounted examples of Walker’s portraiture: Grayson Perry and David Attenborough sit alongside Margot Robbie and Margaret Atwood (a last-minute addition, published in the Sunday Times Style magazine just two weeks before the exhibition is due to open).
A nook at the side of a video reel of Super 8 footage and clips from a short film of Emma Watson reveals the Chapel of Nudes, with Beth Ditto and Kate Moss among the models, each set of images with a different inspiration including The Magic Toyshop and Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
And delightful as it is to see these past works, they are something of a prelude to the main event: 10 enormous and hugely ambitious photo-stories, each a response by Walker to an object, or group of objects, from the V&A’s famously vast archives.
L: Embroidered Casket, about 1675, England, wood covered with satin, silk and metal thread, mica and glass beads © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
R: Tim Walker, Box of Delights, 'James Spencer', London, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio
Wonderful Things presents these images alongside the source of inspiration, allowing you at once to see how one begat the other in Walker’s mind while having absolutely no idea how, actually, it did. Walker’s flights of imagination might seem singular, but he is aided and abetted by long-time collaborator set designer, Shona Heath.
And Heath is responsible for the design of this exhibition too, creating distinct rooms for each collection of images and having no difficulty filling the cavernous space of this gallery. In fact, to call them simply rooms is to do them a disservice.
These are worlds, transporting you further into the images on show, with props and scenery preserved from the shoots and reinstalled here to provide a further bridge.
L: Aubrey Beardsley, 'The Peacock Skirt', 1894, Line block print on Japanese vellum paper (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
R: Tim Walker, 'Duckie Thot, Aubrey’s shadow', London, 2017 (c) Tim Walker Studio
Walker’s images are a visual feast, richly layered with props, clues, details and tricks of light all designed to capture a moment of pure fantasy that can never be recreated, yet thanks to Heath’s elaborate exhibition design one almost feels as if one is there. Like catching lightning in a bottle.
The exhibition, devised and curated by Susanna Brown, curator of photography at the V&A, has been some time in the making: Walker spent nearly a year behind the scenes at the V&A, looking for inspiration in the galleries and archives, on the roof and in the basement.
It then took a further eight months to transform his findings into the Wonderful Things images, working with stylists such as Katy England, Kate Phelan and Amanda Harlech and a vast cast of professional models, club kids and activists.
L: Tim Walker, 'Duckie Thot, Aubrey’s shadow', London, 2017 (c) Tim Walker Studio
R: Tim Walker 'Karen Elson, Sgaire Wood & James Crewe', London, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio
The diversity of the inspirational objects, Walker’s models and the visual language of the images themselves means that this is an exhibition to savour, looking up, down and all around in order to take in every detail.
The images are treated as individual collections and reproduced in different ways. The glitter-drenched British-Asian models of Cloud 9 are printed onto sheets of aluminium, the monochromatic, graphic qualities of Pen & Ink are captured in light box-like frames.
V&A Tim Walker Wonderful Things Exhibition Installation View - 'Lil' Dragon' Section 2 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Handle with Care, Walker’s ode to the conservators of the V&A, repurposes frames set to be discarded and reverses them, so their tape remnants, scores and scratches become part of the art itself.
The same is true of Walker’s scrapbooks, those passports to a dreamland he so painstakingly constructs. They provide an entry, but also a fitting exit – blown up to vast, Through the Looking-Glass proportions and propped in the final space.
Walker’s own writing provides the last word, especially fitting when you think of the amazing objects behind these images: ‘Ends are always followed by beginnings. Something new could start now, right here. There really are so many wonderful things.’
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things opens on 21 September and will run until 8 March, for tickets click here
Gold Whisper members can also enjoy free tickets to this exhibition on the 24th October 10am-5pm.
|What||Review Tim Walker V&A exhibition|
|Where||V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
21 Sep 19 – 08 Mar 20, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
|Website||Please click here to book tickets|