Immerse yourself in the whimsical, wonderful world of Tim Walker at the V&A, designed by longtime collaborator Shona Heath
17 September 2019
It's hard to imagine spending your adolescence burying through the archives at Condé Nast, surrounded by some of the greatest photographs ever taken, and not being compelled to follow suit. And so it was then that one of the industry’s top photographers Tim Walker first realised his calling, and moved to New York to work as a full-time assistant to the renowned American photographer, Richard Avedon. Upon his return, Walker shot his first fashion-story for Vogue at the age of 25, and has been a firm style-bible fixture ever since. His surreal, storybook-fantasy flair is wholly unique and instantly recognisable, while his incredible sets are often populated by some of the biggest names in fashion.
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things will be the largest ever exhibition of Walker’s distinctive pictures, hailing his exceptional contribution to photography over the past quarter century (an accompanying book, Shoot for the Moon, is being published by Thames and Hudson).
The exhibition will also celebrate the pivotal role that the V&A has played in his creative process, with a large part directly influenced by the gallery’s compendium of curiosities. Together with Susanna Brown, curator of photographs at the V&A, Walker first started exploring the project five years ago. But the two have known one another far longer: when she first joined the museum in 2008, one of the first acquisitions she made was a collection of Walker’s pictures. “Tim’s influence is huge, not just in the UK but across the world,” she says. “He sees beauty everywhere and he’s fascinated by the broad spectrum of humanity. By making pictures that celebrate diversity, difference, and individuality, he encourages the fashion industry to be more inclusive.”
Brown has produced numerous international touring exhibitions, including Horst: Photographer of Style (2014) and Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton (2012), and accompanying publications, as well as the collection displays for the museum’s permanent galleries. But this, she says, is one of the most ambitious photography exhibitions ever staged at the museum. “Tim has a wildly inquisitive mind and a boundless energy,” she says. “He never stops innovating and these new pictures are some of the most spectacular he has ever made.”
Working with leading creative director Shona Heath – a long-term collaborator – the sure-to-be sell-out exhibition will showcase more than 300 of Walker’s pieces, spanning photographs, short films, props, scrapbooks and sketches. Having scoured the galleries and archives (and even scaled the roof, apparently), Walker was met with a veritable treasure trove of inspiring objects. “It’s like going on a journey through someone else’s dreams,” says Brown.
From brilliant stained-glass windows to bejewelled snuffboxes, erotic illustrations to historic tapestries, Walker was entranced at every turn. “To me, the V&A has always been a palace of dreams – it’s the most inspiring place in the world,” he says. “The museum’s collection is so wide and eclectic, and I think that’s why it resonates with me so much.”
We are first introduced to the subject through a collection of 100 pictures, taken from previous projects, as well as snippets from Walker’s Super 8 films and first-hand anecdotes. Sir David Attenborough, David Hockney, and Cate Blanchett are just some of the famous faces that peer out from the portrait collection. One wall is devoted entirely to his muses, with Tilda Swinton, Kate Moss and Grayson Perry among them. The all-encompassing experience nods to the many collaborators needed to help conjure his visions. “For me, beauty is everything,” he says. “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.”
The main exhibition space is heavier on the senses, rich with texture and sound, while playing with space and light. Ten separate rooms hold a series of tableaus chronicling the series directly inspired by the V&A. Illuminations invokes the interior of a burned-out cathedral, displaying various Renaissance treasures, while Handle with Care draws inspiration from the gallery’s fashion and textiles collection and features a dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2009 The Horn of Plenty collection.
“I’ve rarely met anyone with an imagination as powerful as Tim’s,” says Brown. “He has the extraordinary ability to weave together disparate threads – memories, visual references, fragments of fairy tales, current cultural debates – to create tapestries that are unmistakably his own. With every shoot he challenges himself to try something new; this fearless approach means his work is constantly evolving.”
I ask Brown to choose a standout favourite piece, but she struggles. “He has created so many extraordinary pictures for the exhibition. However, the shoot titled Lil’ Dragon is one that I particularly love. Shona created an amazing set, which glowed under the UV lights, and Zoe Bedeaux selected the most stunning range of garments and accessories, including many pieces made by students from the London art colleges.”
Following the huge success of his previous exhibitions, both at the Design Museum in 2008 and the stunning Story Teller at Somerset House in 2012, his latest showcase is unlikely to disappoint.
“Many of the objects that I saw during my research at the museum made my heart swell and I wanted to try to create a photograph that would relate not only to the physical presence and beauty of that object, but also to my emotional reaction to it,” says Walker. “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.”
Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, £15, 21 September – 8 March 2020, vam.ac.uk
Shoot For The Moon by Tim Walker, £85, published by Thames and Hudson, thamesandhudson.com