Tim Walker: ‘There’s an extremity to my interest in beauty’

Tim Walker, Karen Elson emerging from Loomis Dean’s photograph, ‘Made to Order, Christian Dior’. London, 2014 © Tim Walker Studio

Out of the frame: Karen Elson emerging from Loomis Dean’s photograph, ‘Made to Order, Christian Dior’, London, 2014. Photograph: Tim Walker/Tim Walker Studio

It’s 1995 and supermodels are not getting out of bed for less than $10,000. In Richard Avedon’s studio, a converted fire station on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Nadja Auermann and Kristen McMenamy are being shot for the new Versace campaign. Both “supes” are almost 6ft, and their hair has been teased upwards, like a skyline, to add another couple of inches. Their frocks and suits are bold, body-conscious, all shoulders and boobs: the acme of power dressing. Avedon – whom everyone calls “Dick” – sets his large- format, 10x8in plate camera low, shooting upwards, making Auermann and McMenamy seem even more like Amazonian deities.

In the background, meanwhile, a skinny, somewhat pasty Englishman, not quite 25, looks on. He is Avedon’s fourth assistant, meaning he defers not only to the photographer but to a third assistant, a second assistant and a studio manager. His main responsibilities are changing light bulbs, emptying wastepaper bins, getting food for everyone. He’s shy and a little dreamy, but he is noticing everything.

“My role was very, very basic, but having to clear dog shit off the street right in front of his studio – which I had to do a lot – enabled to me to have a front-row seat in the experience of seeing Richard Avedon photograph,” recalls Tim Walker, now 49 and one of the world’s leading fashion photographers for two decades. “I was on the front line and how Dick communicated with the subject was everything.”

Tim Walker portrait - The photograph was first shot for W magazine in 2015. It was also used as a contributors image in i-D in 2017
 ‘Avedon actually fired me. I didn’t hustle enough, I was a very tragically bad photo assistant.’ Photograph: James Stopforth/Tim Walker Studio

How so? “Dick would give them a story,” Walker replies. “When Kristen and Nadja came out in two little black suits, he was like, ‘Oh, I think you’re crows and you are on a branch. There’s a worm on the floor and you’re fighting for that worm.’ Very simplistic, childlike scenarios that were very immediate.” You can see how this played out: in one image from the shoot, McMenamy threatens Auermann with a spike-heeled shoe; in another, Auermann throws a punch while McMenamy laughs in her face.

Walker didn’t stay long with Avedon, only a year. “He actually fired me,” says Walker, laughing. “I didn’t hustle enough. I was a very tragically bad photo assistant, very slow, and the people that worked for him were very quick, fiery and technically uber-experienced.”

And, really, you probably wouldn’t instinctively link the two photographers: Avedon is best known for his starkly lit portraits, often set against a minimalist white background; Walker, on the other hand, has a more whimsical, fantastical aesthetic. His work, found in magazines such as VogueWLove and i-D, often exists in a surreal realm somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. The scale is off, or the colours are psychedelic, or there are a pair of white horses galloping through an English stately home or the actor Margot Robbie in pink latex is poised to bomb down a slide into a cracked egg, or a model is sitting in a biplane made from a baguette.

Tilda Swinton, ‘Mr James’s Daydream’, Las Pozas, Mexico, 2012.
 Tilda Swinton, ‘Mr James’s Daydream’, Las Pozas, Mexico, 2012. Photograph: Tim Walker/Tim Walker Studio

But Avedon, who died in 2004, is never far from Walker’s mind. On the day we meet, he’s at a studio in east London preparing a shoot he hopes will be the final piece of work for a new exhibition at the V&A called Tim Walker: Wonderful Things. Today’s images will feature models wearing extraordinary rubber “balloon” creations designed by Fredrik Tjærandsen, a Norwegian just graduated from Central Saint Martins who has come along to watch. Catwalk footage of the designs, which look like huge inflatable orbs until they are deflated by the wearer and turned into dresses, went viral this summer. Tjærandsen won the prestigious L’Oréal young talent award and, overnight, gained 25,000 Instagram followers.

Walker is slim, his dark hair and beard trimmed to the same length. His clothes – black T-shirt, shorts and Nikes – are both less strange and less ‘fashion’ than you’d expect. He has no idea how the photographs will turn out, but he is already toying with Avedon-style scenarios to create a world and coax performances from the models. “This afternoon there will be a bunch of balloons being sold and they are going to be floating around and someone’s bought a balloon and a child is taking them away,” he muses, as we head downstairs to a café. “I’d never talk to someone and say, ‘Stand here, face the light, pose like this…’” Walker pauses, making his point explicit: “So yeah, I owe everything to Avedon.”

Looking at Walker’s portfolio, you’d assume he could only have survived a disturbed, deranged childhood. Except, really, it sounds like it couldn’t have been more idyllic. He was born in Guildford, Surrey, but when he and his brother were little, his parents moved to an isolated spot in rural Dorset. Their summers were spent jumping fences, building tree houses and trying to dam the little river that flowed through their valley so that they could swim in it. “Not that my upbringing is any better than anyone else’s,” he says, “but I know the privilege of growing up feral, being allowed to run around gave me a lot of what I draw on now.”

Stella Tennant in Dior Haute Couture dress, ‘Japonais’, London, 2016.
 Stella Tennant in Dior Haute Couture dress, ‘Japonais’, London, 2016. Photograph: Tim Walker/Tim Walker Studio

When Walker wasn’t mucking about outside with his brother, he was drawing. “Cartoons or cartoonesque figures, extreme,” he says. “So I’d be drawing an extremely tall person with very, very long hair, or I’d be drawing a very round person, or a very black person, a very white person, a very pink or green person. It was sort of a Mr Men language that I’m still doing in a way. There’s an extremity to my interest in beauty.”

Walker is that rare photographer who doesn’t post images to Instagram. “I’m not comfortable with people looking at technology too much, because it takes you out of reality in a relentless, needy way,” he says. “And I think just looking at images all in one size makes everything very linear. There’s a great joy of encountering an enormous Wolfgang Tillmans print he’s just stuck up with a nail on a wall in the Tate, then looking at a tiny Cecil Beaton in the National Portrait Gallery taken in the 1930s, then opening up the Sunday Times and seeing Don McCullin’s pictures. Instagram is scary. Be careful. Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

After school, Walker spent a few months cataloguing the Cecil Beaton archive at magazine publishing house Condé Nast in London, followed by art school in Exeter. Being given the boot by Avedon during a year in New York didn’t derail his career, in fact the opposite: aged 25, back in the UK, he received his first commission for Vogue (a relationship that continues to this day). Walker soon became the go-to for high-concept fashion shoots, often in collaboration with the set designer Shona Heath.

Cate Blanchett skiing on the moon, Comme des Garçons & Julien d’Ys, Paris, 2015.
 Cate Blanchett skiing on the moon, Comme des Garçons & Julien d’Ys, Paris, 2015. Photograph: Tim Walker/Tim Walker Studio

A turning-point, though, came in 2009 when Walker was asked by Vogue to photograph the designer Alexander McQueen. Walker was on a roll before the shoot: the previous year, he’d staged his first major solo exhibition at the Design Museum, and he had recently been honoured with an Infinity Award from the International Centre of Photography in New York. For McQueen, he sourced a skull and asked the set designer Andy Hillman to make a bow tie out of bones that McQueen would wear.

The problem was that McQueen didn’t want to wear the bow tie and he didn’t want to put the skull on his head, as Walker envisioned. There was an awkward impasse. But then McQueen popped a cigarette in the mouth of the skull, now perched on the table in front of him. He lit another for himself. The portrait would become one of Walker’s most famous, and an iconic image of McQueen, who killed himself the following year.

“McQueen taking control of that sitting taught me the importance of the subject owning their photograph,” says Walker now. “So I am very into all creative people who I work with, whether it’s Fredrik Tjærandsen or McQueen, I want them to own and enjoy and exist within their photograph.”

Kate Moss, Chanel boxes and a Coca- Cola, Chanel Haute Couture, The Ritz, Paris, 2012.
 Kate Moss, Chanel boxes and a Coca- Cola, Chanel Haute Couture, The Ritz, Paris, 2012. Photograph: Tim Walker/Tim Walker Studio

Walker insists that inspiration for his unhinged dreamscapes comes from “the same place it does for you and everyone”. He goes on, “I look at television, I read, I look at National Geographic, at newspapers, at documentary photography, at fashion photography, at cinema, at Fassbender’s films, I look at Merchant Ivory films… Anything that any one of us has seen – high, low, mid – and then I mix it all up.”

His best ideas come when he is daydreaming: cycling through Victoria Park, near where he lives, swimming in the Olympic pool in Stratford, walking the dog. A few years ago Walker photographed the director David Lynch, who explained his weirdest thoughts came after he had been doing transcendental meditation. “It was a state that sends up so much creativity for him,” says Walker. “So I learned how to meditate transcendentally.” He breaks into a broad grin, flashing a gold tooth, “And it didn’t really give me a lot!”

Walker was approached by the V&A back in 2016 about doing an exhibition that looked back at his career in the fashion industry, but also included new, specially commissioned work. It was a huge honour for the photographer, but perhaps an equally outsized gamble for the museum.

“It is rare for the V&A to give an exhibition of this scale to a photographer so young,” admitted Susanna Brown, the V&A’s curator of photography, at the launch in March. “But I feel he has achieved so much over the last 25 years. His work speaks to so many people.” The invitation came at a perfect time for Walker. The commissions from magazines and brands have never stopped rolling in, but he was finding himself disenchanted with the fashion world. There are some exceptions – the Vogue editor Edward Enninful, for example, is a friend and Walker credits him with “de-stagnating” what we think of model beauty – but the industry was leaving him cold. “It’s isolated figures making a lot of money and creating very banal work,” he says. “Artistry is at a premium.”

Alongside a more conventional retrospective of 100 or so images in a white room, the V&A asked Walker to explore their archives, which contain some 2.3m objects spanning 5,000 years of human creativity, and select 10 items that excited him. He would then make new photographic projects based around each of those. “I spent a year opening boxes and speaking with each archivist at the V&A,” says Walker. The objects he picked include a manuscript made for the Duchess of Brittany in the 1470s, illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and a dress from McQueen’s 2009 Horn of Plenty collection. The photographs, alongside the objects that inspired them, will be displayed in room sets created by Shona Heath – think a burned-out cathedral or an opulent country house – so you will feel like you have stumbled into one of Walker’s photographs.

“The best thing about the V&A project is that it’s a never-ending resource of inspiration,” says Walker. “And coming at that point in my life, it was like a feast! It’s like when you suddenly discover a new restaurant and you’re tasting flavours you’ve never tasted before.” Walker needs to go back to his shoot with the balloon dresses. After today, three years of work on the V&A show will be complete. As for what happens next, he’s not sure. As much as Avedon remains a touchstone, Walker is less interested in emulating his ferocious work ethic. He has a newish boyfriend and he likes being one step removed from the fashion world. “I feel sorry for Dick,” says Walker. “He was brilliant, but I don’t know how much fun he had. Working with him was very, very hard, like being in the army. Every time he photographed, it was like going into war. Whereas I’m trying to have a nourishing life and also hopefully make some memorable photographs. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

There’s also the fact that magazines are shuttering at an alarming rate. “It’s undeniably the death of print media and where does that leave culture?” he says. “I grew up wanting to see photographs that I make on the printed page, so it’s quite an interesting time to stop and take stock and decide where I could go next.” Does that mean Walker might stop taking photographs then? “I just need six months off,” he replies, gnomically. “And when I say time out, not really, because I’m going to be reading, watching, looking.” He smiles, “I’ll still be the same old voyeur.”

[“source=theguardian”]

Author: Ben