Enter photographer Tim Walker’s fantastical world at the V&A

Image maker, explorer, wanderer, dreamer – Tim Walker’s photography is about elaborate staging and romantic motifs. He creates fairy-tale worlds, magical sets, then turns them on their heads. Spanning some 25 years, his is a fascinating body of work captured in an enchanting exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Tim Walker V&A (C) Design Talking
Tim Walker at the V&A (c) Design Talking

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ is as much about Walker’s work as his relation to the gallery hosting this exhibition – for he has formed an intimate conversation with the V&A. Walker once called the museum ‘a place for dreams’, noting that the eclectic collection here has long resonated with him. ‘The V&A is the most inspiring place in the world,’ says one of the most successful fashion photographers of his generation.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things (c) V&A

For 25 years Walker has photographed models, celebrities and artists. His work appears in Vogue, W, i-D, AnOther and LOVE. He certainly has some favourite muses – Tilda Swinton features frequently and the photographs of the actress are some of his most powerful.

This is the largest-ever exhibition of Walker, though don’t expect a straightforward retrospective. There are plenty of his well-known photos here, but more exciting are the new works informed by the V&A’s collection. In preparation, Walker spent a year exploring the archives, rummaged through the maze of the V&A’s 145 galleries. He scaled the roof of the west London site, and the labyrinth of Victorian passages below in search of arts, ideas and objects to inspire a new body of work.

Tim Walker, 'Tilda Swinton', Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio
Tim Walker, ‘Tilda Swinton’, Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, 2018 (c) Tim Walker Studio

Amongst his finds are stained-glass windows, vivid Indian miniature paintings, jewelled snuffboxes, erotic illustrations, golden shoes, and a 65-metre-long photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry. This curious collection, also on display, have informed his narrative to form ten of the main installations in the exhibition.

Walker believes what happens in his artificial, staged worlds have to seem as real as possible for the photograph to be believable, and to resonate with us on a visceral level. His is, therefore, a very human brand of fantasy. Yet these are grand ideas and the complex production requires creative help. For the V&A, Walker worked with one of his frequent collaborators, the set designer Shona Heath, to form these ethereal settings.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things (c) V&A

‘Each new shoot is a love letter to an object from the V&A collection, and an attempt to capture my encounter with the sublime,’ says Walker. ‘For me, beauty is everything. I’m interested in breaking down the boundaries that society has created, to enable more varied types of beauty and the wonderful diversity of humanity to be celebrated.’ Preparing for this exhibition, he admits, has pushed him into new territories. ‘It is very exciting, and I’m at a stage in my life where I feel brave enough to do that.’

Access to a decent smartphone and an Instagram account has made photographers out of many of us. And we need talents like Tim Walker to remind us all that great image-making isn’t a matter of a good lens and photoshop skills. Timeless photographs – from Man Ray to Lee Miller to Cecil Beaton (whose work inspired Walker) and Richard Avedon (for whom he was an assistant) are about constructing images, choreographing a stage, narrating a story. These are moving images captured in a still moment.

Ultimately, ‘Tim Walker: Wonderful Things’ is a meditation on the beauty of the imagination. And much like the V&A, each room unravels a new and wondrous world.

Tim Walker: Wonderful Things is on at the V&A from 21 September 2019 – 8 March 2020

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