In the middle of the room stands a large grasshopper, conducting a bee playing the cello, whilst a black beetle flicks through the sheets of music. In the corner of an adjacent room, they’re watched silently by a skeleton, cowering in the corner with his spine pressed up against the ceiling. Although the creatures are alien in their surroundings, the photographs on the wall provide the missing link; the real life props from the set of a story, told with relentless honesty by Tim Walker.
Walker’s latest exhibition at Somerset House embodies his working style on a level that is both very personal and professional. The maze of white rooms with photographs, some in frames and some looking back from wooden boxes, almost create a setting of a dream; or at least, a very tame nightmare. Walker’s words painted on the wall read how “it is very difficult to make the ideas in my head come to life, but what is harder is making them look effortless”. Despite being his personal signature within fashion photography, the surrealism that comes to the surface within Walker’s work is the product of “a genuine sense of love for the subject matter” – something truly undeniable in every image.
From the photographic cliché of instigating “life” into a snapshot, Walker’s eye for emotion and fantasy is something to relish. The intimate nature of the photographs is unavoidable, illustrating the emotional side of the pursuit. As Karlie Kloss dances over a broken and deceased Humpty Dumpty, she stares back at you with a terrifying intensity, as if you were witnessing a ritual or a spiteful act of vengeance. The image itself is not disturbing, but the wide spectrum of emotions captured in something that isn’t real is. The fear depicted by a tearful Lindsay Wixon, being pursued by a terrifyingly ugly 10ft doll through the woods is real, and makes the viewer is instantly uncomfortable. Not because we’ve suffered the same ordeal in reality, but rather in memory, as if Walker had recreated a nightmare from our childhood.
In contrast, the photographs features in ‘The Wild Shores’ offer a more romantic perspective of photography, styled with priceless couture, in the most breathtaking settings. The giant swan boat in the centre of the room served as another mental stimulant, creating the link between the photographs and that single moment the shutter dropped back on set. Covering one alcove was a shoot in Nambia with Agyness Deyn for British Vogue, wandering through an abandoned house with a cheetah in 1940’s attire; quite different from Lilly Donaldson mounting an original Spitfire fighter plane as it crashes through her living room, keeping the work balanced and original.
Focusing on more traditional work, the content took a drastic turn when featuring Walker’s portraits of fashion figures. Customised to the individual, any props features are minimal but relevant to the interests or personality of the subject and almost complete absent of emotion. Consequently, this leaves Grace Coddington with nothing but her ginger hair brushed in front of her face, standing with the hairbrush in hand. Rather than constructing a romanticised view of the person, Walker focuses on the flaws and uncomfortable attributes of being photographed, making them all the more real as the subject and letting their most distinct personal attributes shine through. Alexander McQueen looks at you with a bored expression, enjoying a casual cigarette with a human skull who has also lit up, sharply contrasting to Tilda Swinton, curiously peering behind the high collar of an abstractly cut coat, her skin and hair white as a sheet. Considering that his portrait subjects are well knowing verbalising their personal inspirations, it makes you think how much one photograph can truly reveal about a person, despite not knowing them at all.
Overall, ‘Story Teller’ simply reiterates the Walker’s popularity as a photographer. Garnering one of the biggest queues at the Vogue Festival in back in April, his personal insight into his work is very different from what he produces. The man himself summarises his mental processes of working as the interior of a camera, “upholstered entirely of black velvet” and void of any stimulant, ironically producing an image that is more colourful than we could ever imagine. The ideas set up by Walker both showcase the clothing at hand and the story being told and the exhibition explains the workings of his ideas, bringing the viewer closer to his creative path, yet always slightly out of reach. But perhaps they should stay that way. Although the content of the single shot in time may be fantasy, the fables within the them stay with you, much like the true workings of a real story teller.