Tim Walker Talk and Q&A

‘I would never say I was a fashion photographer’, says Tim Walker, one of the world’s leading fashion photographers. ‘I didn’t buy fashion. I saw the industry as superficial.’

Surprising, given Walker’s work has always been found in the pages of VogueI-D, and magazines, to name but a few. His photographs are exhibited in permanent collections at the National Portrait Gallery and V&A, and have won him several awards. Invited to speak by Christ Church Arts Week, Walker is presenting a lecture, ‘Imagining Fantasy and Creating Surrealism’, discussing his work, past and present. ‘They’re all dreams’, he told The White Review in 2012, ‘every picture is a fantasy.’ It feels like the first days of term: the lecture is packed. 

‘Where am I now?’, he begins. He wants to avoid a linear narrative, so starts at the end. He projects up some pictures. ‘This is a shoot from W Magazine.’ They’re taken of Hollywood stars from the films of last year. ‘I love portraits at the moment. I love people. It’s a great way to connect to the culture and talent of today’. He admits his job is extraordinary. ‘You forget this is not normal.’ He points out celebrities like unknown guests at a party: ‘Do you know Timothée Chalamet?’. Nods all round. And he still loves fantasy. Walker created a world inspired by the work of Sasha Frolova, a Russian designer working with latex. Nicole Kidman stands before a latex castle in the clouds, in front of two latex courtiers, decked in ball gowns and wigs. Next slide. ‘And here’s Margot Robbie sliding into an egg’. For an image so elaborate, so constructed, the process is spontaneous. There’s only so much research he can do. The magazines promise to send material, like the actor’s films, but never do. ‘It’s like cooking with what’s in your fridge’, he explains. ‘You just turn up. It’s working with what you have in front of you.’

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The weather’s no exception. ‘Everything I do’, he says, ‘stems from British weather.’ He recalls being captivated by light, how something is illuminated. ‘I was so effected by it. It had a massive effect - the ever-changing weather.’ He moves back to his first shoot for Vogue: the ‘dusty, sunny pictures’ of Glastonbury from 1997. The photos are steeped in reality, in mud. ‘What you think a shot will be it never is’, he says. He envisioned flower-clad beauties dancing in fields. It was more like the trenches. ‘You can’t control what is in front of you in its chaos.’ If you try, ‘you will miss out on the beauty.’ In a previous interview, Walker talked of his interest in ‘the “authentic” and authentic beauty. I’ve tried to perpetuate the idea of something that’s more unusually beautiful.’ He flips to an image of a mother stood in the mud, holding her child. ‘They couldn’t find the right outfit’, he explains, ‘and both were exhausted.’ The child is asleep in her arms, the woman is done…a muddy Madonna. ‘You harness these moments as a photographer. Something happens that makes it authentic.’ To capture some truth, you react to reality. 

It’s the same for his fantasies. His slides move through a ‘pleasing surreal playground’. There are beds on cars, beds in trees, fields in bathrooms. We’re at the start of his career, the ‘playful’ and ‘innocent’ Walker. ‘I became more ambitious’, he says, ‘to articulate my childhood, my fantasy.’ Sets became more extreme. A plane flies through a room, out through the door. He began dreaming in childhood: ‘my Dad would read me Alice in Wonderland’, he explains. ‘It’s strange why it resonates. Seeing our reality through Wonderland helps me.’ It has helped him navigate fashion. The fashion industry is Wonderland, he says: ‘Lagerfeld. Where’s he from? He must be from Wonderland.’ And what about Alice? ‘The spirit of Alice has perpetually been in my head.’ He aligns himself to Alice, ‘looking at everything’. Each photo, you could say, is its own kind of rabbit hole. 

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But like Alice, he tried to get out: ‘I was looking for a way out of Wonderland’. If his work is all about sets, about fantasy, he sought the total opposite. He switches to a portrait of Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Lavin, shot for the New Yorker. There’s no set, no background. ‘Albez wanted to cut out his body’, he explains, ‘so he sat at a table.’ Props are sparse, but still significant. He picked out some ears, he explains. They said something about him; he said they were ‘everything’. The set stuck. Walker shows other portraits, structured the same: a single character sat against white. Timothée Chalamet, for the shoot, rests his chin on a plain white table, in a plain white shirt. You only see his face, his eyes shot up to the camera. So has Walker woken up?

He woke up to fashion. He admits he found the industry ‘silly and trite’ and ‘was interested in other things.’  This all changed with a particular episode of David Attenborough, with tropical birds in New Guinea. The male birds are showing off their appearance to seduce the females: ‘The more extravagant male is more likely noticed’, says Attenborough, while ‘the female is modestly dressed.’ Walker is very fond of this clip. ‘It showed me that fashion is innate within us’, he explains. ‘Dress is natural. I could see in the birds what Westwood or Galliano were doing. I completely embraced fashion, immersed myself in fashion photography genuinely.’ He became interested in beautiful clothes, in talented designers. He explored new ideas, of how to incorporate these ‘beautiful clothes and beautiful women’. He shows us one example: Hans Holbein’s wood cuts, The Dance of Death (1523-5), showing skeletons mocking everyone from kings to ploughmen. ‘All photographers I talk to’, he says, ‘are fascinated by death. The reminder that we’re aging, that youth is fleeting.’ The idea lead to a shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, ‘Tim Burton’s Magical Fashion’ (2009), which recreates the Holbein. Nina Ricci dances with a huge skeleton. Or in a portrait with Alexander McQueen (2016). ‘He lit up a cigarette’, he said, ‘and put in the skull’. The image is now a memento mori - McQueen died two weeks later.  

The lecture opened up to the audience. A hand goes up: ‘How do you stay fresh as a photographer?’. The camera is a ‘sensitive mirror’, Walker says. ‘If you’re bored – even if you hide the fact – the picture will be bored. If you’re stressed the picture will be stressed. The camera is like a sponge.’ How does he avoid that? ‘You must always be looking to challenge yourself. You are always looking for keys to rooms you’ve never been in.’ Second question: ‘As photography is about capturing truth, do you think it’s your fantasies or your simpler portraits that capture truth best?’ Even with artifice, he replies, you can feel a model’s personality: ‘Sometimes performance allows you to see someone better. That could be before a white background, but dressing up can sometimes get us closer to that person.’ 

A third question takes us back to the beginning, with Walker as full-time assistant to Richard Avedon. How did Avedon effect Walker’s work? ‘Getting work with Avedon was absolute luck’, he says. ‘New York was the capital of photography then. Avedon was an extraordinary communicator, yet he never gave obvious directions. All his models were given roles: ‘a black crow on a branch’, for example. His shoots were simple role plays. I stole that idea. I love playing with character.’ And the last question from the audience: ‘How do you want viewers to respond to your images?’ That’s a great question, he says. ‘In all honesty, I always have a bar I want to jump, to achieve something I haven’t done before. I’m working to progress.’ The picture may begin with himself, how hereacts first, but he is ‘hyper aware’ of his ‘huge responsibility’: ‘I try to make pictures that will make a positive difference. That’s what I’m doing.’ And in terms of the evening, it’s safe to say, he certainly did.

A huge thank you to Christ Church Arts Week for the invitation and organising the event.


StyleTony WilkesComment