Magical. Captivating. Eccentric. These are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the imaginative work of Tim Walker. Like Gregroy Crewdson, Walker’s photographs are not just made, they are meticulously crafted. From the kernel of an idea in his mind to the building of the sets, he is there every step of the way taking care to make sure every detail is exactly where he wants it. His photographs are filled with beauty and a sense of whimsy. They seem to have the ability to entrance anyone who looks at them.
Born in England in 1970, Walker started taking photographs as a teenager. His real passion, however, began during a year of work experience before going to college. As part of his job, he found himself setting up the Cecil Beaton archive in the Condé Naste London library. Beaton soon became his inspiration. The photographs he found had a wonderful sense of play and fantasy, which Walker was highly attracted to. He went on to study photography and, after graduation, worked as a freelance photography assistant in London before moving to New York, where he was lucky enough to assist for Richard Avedon. After only a year in New York, Walker moved back to England to care for his father who was suffering from leukemia. He spent a lot of that time shooting the things that surrounded him – his house, his family, the gardens, the sheep – it all became a sort of therapy for him, and, by 1996 he had a decent portfolio, which he took to the Vogue fashion director and soon had landed his first story.
That spread in Vogue launched his career in the fashion world, although he was told by many that he was not cut out for fashion. He agrees, saying, “The point of fashion is that you take the epicure you want. And fashion is the only photography that allows fantasy, and I’m a fantasist. I love beautiful clothes, but I don’t give a monkey’s what’s on the catwalks.” He loves fashion for its imagination, for the freedom it gives him to tell a story, the story he wants to tell.
Walker draws on childhood memories, using an imagination that most of us have lost sight of as we have grown older. Using scrapbooks and diaries, he draws out ideas for shoots before they become reality. He uses words and stories and sketches. His final images are a result of hours of work and collaborating with others to come up with the exact narrative he is looking for. He says, “I often doodle the picture I have in my head before I take it, to show people what I have in mind. Also, what is available to me is my imagination is limitless, while I can’t always get it in reality. I create these fantastical environments, which I then have to turn into a real photograph, so drawing them first helps.”
Much the way David Fincher approaches film, the environments Walker creates are akin to theatrical sets; intricately detailed and stunningly designed. Every inch of the frame is full of things to look at, from the giant eggs of a giant swan, to the nearly destroyed antique toy cars in a dust-filled room. One of his set designers, Shona Heath, says he would rather spend his photographer’s fee on sets and props than on a first-class air fare. His images evoke a sense of wonder and bring to mind a time and place where the world is carefree and happy. Walker likes to capture imaginary places and juxtapose them with something which has already been. They bring a sense of nostalgia, yes, but it is nostalgia for something that has never really existed. We have never actually been to the places in the images, but we feel as though we have, somewhere along the way, perhaps in our dreams.
Walker takes great care in picking out his models, believing that the relationship between the subject and the photographer is key. The model has to be the star of the photograph and has to embody the mood of the image. She has to be able to tell you the story without speaking a word. This is why Walker calls the best models “silent-movie actresses.” They have to be able to assume a character, become a persona, not just wear the clothes and pose. They have to immerse themselves in the world he has created.
Walker’s worlds are physical worlds; nothing is done digitally. All of the sets are done using real props, including things like a giant camera or an airplane in a bedroom. He has never been interested in the technical side of the camera, instead he uses it as “a window to something magical.” He compares it to cooking; being able to mix “a bit of a memory with a bit of something that you’ve seen on a film, together with something you’ve read in a book, and then a certain color. And you mix it up to create a new picture.”
After seeing such great success with his photographs, Walker has moved into short films. In 2010 he created The Lost Explorer, a film based on a short story by Patrick McGrath.He doesn’t have any illusions that he would be an expert just because he is a photographer, saying the disciplines “are so different.” He was, however, able to draw on the same imagination he uses so well in photography. The film is almost an extension of his still images, with the same surreal and fantasy-like sets.
There is a magic in photography that we often lose sight of pursuing the business of photography. Walker has not only kept that magic, but has embraced it. You can never be depressed looking at Walker’s photographs. He brings a sense of joy and playfulness that is so often missing in fashion photography. Fashion seems to take itself so seriously when it should be about fun, or at least parts of it should be. Walker brings that fun element back in and relishes it, something we could take a lesson from.
BOOKS: Tim Walker