In the 25 years since his graduation, Tim Walker has become one of the most singular photographers of his generation. Diane Smyth finds him in reflective mood ahead of a new book and exhibition at the V&A
Tim Walker is a people person. Back in 2008, I was one of many journalists to interview him about his lauded exhibition at the Design Museum, Tim Walker – Pictures, yet despite that, today he recognises me immediately. “Last time I saw you, I was younger, you were younger,” he says, having just spent all night on a fashion shoot. “I have a photograph of you in my head, from when I met you at the Design Museum, and now I’m meeting you again. I’m so aware of time passing and how you have to make haste… Photography primarily makes you aware of your own mortality.”
A decade ago, Walker was best known for his elaborate fashion photography, featured in big-name publications such as Vogue. He was just 25 years old when he shot his first story for the seminal fashion bible, capturing elaborately designed scenes of fantasy, turning models into princess-like characters as they reclined on beds piled high with mattresses, with giant, broken humpty-dumpties, or with swans.
Today, we discuss Walker’s latest endeavour. He has just completed a three-year commission for London’s V&A, for which he was asked to produce 10 new projects sparked off by objects found in the museum’s vast collection. Scouring both the V&A’s public galleries and huge conservation stores, Walker selected items such as Aubrey Beardsley’s erotic illustrations from the late 1800s, and a Medieval treasure box – anything which suggested to him, “10 different worlds that I could articulate as a series of photographs.
“When I went to the V&A as a kid, I’d see a lot of beautiful bodies – male, female, young, old, sculptures, paintings, forms, representations, and that was incredibly inspiring,” says Walker. “If you look around there’s so much homoerotic iconography, it’s everywhere – beautiful men ripping their shorts off revealing beautiful bodies, beautiful bums… I’m very interested in that, I think it’s very beautiful to photograph people and celebrate homoerotica.
“I defined my sexuality by looking at photographs and art, and I knew that if I went to the V&A I could see what interested me. So when we did Aubrey Beardsley, we amped up the hidden vaginas and dicks in his pictures. We had to honour him, it’s about honouring an artist’s or a human’s articulation of beauty, and I was really proud and impressed that the V&A went there.”
Drawing on this inspiration, the final exhibition – Tim Walker: Wonderful Things – includes five projects surrounding the nude, an area beyond fashion that Walker has become increasingly interested in. It was, in fact, a major nude project, privately commissioned four years ago by the collector Nicola Erni – when Walker honed in on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and photographed fantastical, sometimes near-grotesque images – which impressed the V&A. It showed the museum’s directors that Walker had the ability to create work inspired by objects in its collection – a collection which, despite the museum’s buttoned-up Victorian origins, includes many sensual nudes. “The thing with fashion photography is you always have to dress – that is the point, you are documenting dress,” he says. “But I was fascinated with Hieronymus Bosch as a child, fascinated by the nudity.” He adds: “The antithesis of dress is skin, the beauty of age.”
Born in 1970 and growing up in the Devon countryside, he was attracted to “the bauble of fashion” but felt “very uninvited” given that he wasn’t raised in London and didn’t know anyone in the business. Even so, after he finished school, he found his way onto an internship at Vogue publisher Condé Nast, helping out in the picture library. There he discovered the work of Cecil Beaton, the UK’s most prominent fashion and portrait photographer in the interwar era, spending the next year establishing an archive of his work. Looking at the worlds Beaton created in his studio, Walker was inspired, both by the older photographer’s vision and his technical limitations.
“I was interested in being a stylist initially, and a writer, and I was interested in clothes – I never had a technical interest [in photography],” says Walker. “But I think Beaton had no technical ability, yet I could see how he could articulate himself with a camera. It was very tinfoil and plastic and cellophane and paper cut-outs, and actually, technically his pictures are really quite crap, particularly early on. He was so young when he started out. But the beauty, his articulation of beauty, floored me. He became absolutely the way in.”
Walker went on to study photography at Exeter College of Art, graduating in 1994 and becoming an assistant, initially to various photographers in London and then flying to New York to work with Richard Avedon. Assisting Avedon, “informed me so much as a photographer”, he says, but what he learned wasn’t technical, and wasn’t even about images per se. It was all about communication, about “how to try to make people shine”, says Walker. “He was extraordinary. It was lots of role-playing – the models weren’t sex goddesses, they were crows in little black suits by Versace, hungry and looking for worms. He’d say, ‘There’s the worm, you’ve got to dive down and get it!’ and that made those pictures. He really got extraordinary performances out of people who weren’t performers.”
While Walker found the era of the supermodel “disheartening and alienating”, the arrival of grunge and a more quirky ideal that came into vogue via models such as Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor, allowed him to start establishing long-term relationships with set designers such as Shona Heath (who he worked with on the Hieronymus Bosch commission) and Simon Costin, plus stylists, hair and make-up artists, and more. Walker started to build his fairytale vision. “That’s when it turns into a big production”, he says, and while he insists he has been “privileged to have a go at working with all these props and brilliantly talented people”, he also started to find it exhausting. “It was a very exciting period – I was young, I had a lot of energy, and I had a lot I wanted to say about my take on beauty,” he says. “I don’t have the energy so much now. It’s very expensive, and it’s energy-draining.”
Time for self-reflection
Walker has just finished a retrospective book with Thames & Hudson, titled Shoot for the Moon, which will be published in September, but far from resting on his laurels now that he’s one of the most lauded photographers of his generation, he still prefers to push the boundaries of his comfort zone, finding it “thrilling” – if scary. He’s nothing if not self-questioning, with an ongoing self-examination that’s kept him and his practice moving. There’s no tried-and-tested way of creating a good image, he says, which means he tries to be open to everything.
Walker’s open-mindedness has led to a feeling of excitement towards the changing fashion industry today. As a business, it’s evolving from something “incredibly closed down” in terms of representation and beauty, he says, to something “completely democratic. Age, race, religion, everyone’s invited,” he says. “It’s very exciting. “I think it’s a very, very interesting time now,” he adds. “It’s a fragmentation – a mirror has been dropped from a great height, and there are a million different shards of glass that are reflecting back on us in a distorted way. It’s an extraordinary time, and it has not settled – it’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s a flux time. I think the computer, the reach of communication in allowing us to communicate with one another, has completely disempowered the old guard. It’s a very new beginning.”
Now, he says – and it perhaps links to his time with Avedon – he just wants to make his sitters shine, whether they’re famous models celebrated for their beauty, or people posing for portraits because of their success in other fields. Whether he’s photographing “a beautiful boy who grew up gay and was shamed” or “a beautiful black girl who couldn’t have been a model”, he wants to show them at their best.
“A mirror has been dropped from
a great height, and there are a million different shards of glass that are reflecting back on us in a distorted way. It’s an extraordinary time”
So while he still continues to shoot high-end fashion, he is also expanding his oeuvre into portraiture, working for magazines such as W, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. In contrast to the theatre of his fashion work, he will often opt for a very simple, stripped-back set.
“It’s something that’s exploded since I last saw you,” he says of his return to a more modest approach. “It’s a response to the baroque complication of working in a ‘world’. When I create a world, it’s incredibly complicated and intricate to get right because there are so many elements – it’s just ultimately a complicated vision when you look through the camera. The antithesis is me taking a picture of you now, in a beautiful light, with a white background… You become the world, you’re the one I’m interested in.” A good portrait is “a mutual agreement”, he says, adding that he questions the value of a portrait in which “the photographer is too over it, if it’s 80 per cent photographer and 20 per cent subject. “It’s a very gentle guiding, never a push,” he says. “I would never want to push someone into a situation.”
He points to photographing the film director David Lynch as a formative experience, though one that he initially found disappointing because “I just turned up, he wore a white shirt, and nothing happened”. It was only later that he realised that ‘nothing’ had been the point – that Lynch, a transcendental meditation devotee, had wanted nothing to happen “because everything inside was a sort of meditative expression of a blank piece of paper”.
“He loved the white paper, and just drew a tiny symbol on the paper, then just stood and looked at the camera, and that was fabulous,” says Walker. “It’s like Gandhi – what did Gandhi have when he died? A pair of wooden-soled sandals and that was it, and there was a beautiful simplicity to that. The emptiness of life and the likeness and the fact we don’t carry belongings is a very Lynchian theory.” When Walker photographed Lynch it was “just me and him”.
Walker’s east London studio is “very, very small” and intimate, he says, with no room for a big crew or set and the potential for intimidation that they bring. Even so, he’s not about to give up on big productions or big crews just yet – as his work with the V&A shows. And while he can “take a picture of David Lynch at a white table on my own, I can’t create an exhibition at the V&A without a whole host of people”, and he says he feels privileged to have worked with the curators and experts at the museum, who shared their knowledge with him and gave him “an extraordinary education”. He insists that Shona Heath has been “the absolute lynchpin” of the V&A project, creating every set, present on every shoot, and designing the exhibition.“It’s a very beautiful conversation we always have, I think she’s the best.”
When I ask what he wants to do next, Walker – off the back of the all-night shoot, the new book, and the three-year project at the V&A – replies he wants to take his dog for a really long walk in the park, spend some time at home cooking and being with friends, and read and recharge. It was a beautiful time to make the book and have the exhibition because it was so reflective, he says; next he wants to work out “the way the world, the mirror, has shattered, and where I fit into one of those little fragments”.
“There were rules before – when I last met you there was establishment, there were rules, things were happening in a certain way,” he explains. “Now all the walls are coming down – he became she, she became they, black became white, white became black, everything’s completely changed. All I know is that anything goes, as long as you’re responsible and you’re honest.
“This is merely a time for doing things responsibly and with great kindness,” he adds. “If you’re kind and responsible and love humankind generally, the world is your oyster.”