REVIEW

Fashion photographer Tim Walker's works of artistic brilliance are collected in Wonderful Things

Tim Walker didn't imagine that he'd ever become a photographer.

In 2017, Walker confessed to i-D that he'd always been more interested in pictures than photography.

He also admitted to feeling slightly out of his depth in the world of ISO settings and F-Stops when he was starting out.

"The technical aspects of the camera... it wasn't my world," he told the model, Adwoa Aboah.

"But the finished thing, the photograph, is something that really spoke to me."

Walker's confession was hardly surprising. To look at a Tim Walker photograph is to behold an image that has more in common with one of William Blake's expressive etchings, or even a Pre-Raphaelite painting, than an expertly executed shot by, say, Herb Ritts or Richard Avedon.

Put simply, Walker's images possess qualities rarely found in fashion photography, a fact that isn't lost on the co-author of Wonderful Things, and Victoria & Albert photography curator, Susanna Brown.

Snuffbox with oriental scenes, ca.1745. Picture: The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Snuffbox with oriental scenes, ca.1745. Picture: The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"Tim's outlook has more in common perhaps with the Romantic painters and poets of the early nineteenth century than with any photographer," writes Brown in her introduction to the book.

"He shares many of the characteristics of the Romantics: an interest in childhood, an awe of nature, strong senses and emotions, a desire to celebrate the individual and a mighty imagination."

He also commands a keen sense of history. As Walker embarked on his voyage of discovery through the V&A's vast collection, he was reminded of a diary entry by the British Egyptologist, Howard Carter.

It was 26th November 1922 and Carter had finally, after a decade-long quest, found what others had been seeking for centuries: the tomb of Egypt's famous boy king.

With Lord Carnarvon, his financial backer, looking on anxiously, Carter drilled a small hole in a door bearing Tutankhamun's royal seal, lit a candle and peered inside.

"As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold...

"I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

It's hard to imagine the notoriously pervy Terry Richardson, or even Mario Testino, himself no stranger to accusations of sexual harassment, conjuring an obscure historical artefact as they prepared for a shoot.

But Walker, who is best known for his fantastical and otherworldly images, is not your average fashion photographer, and this was no ordinary commission.

A few years ago, the V&A tasked the photographer with creating a new body of work based on objects in its collection.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the photographer who speaks about the V&A as a "palace of dreams," and he jumped at it.

Walker mined the museum's stores and galleries for his own wonderful things, eventually settling on the disparate group of objects we encounter in these pages.

There's an 18th century snuffbox from France, film stills from The Lord of the Flies and the Bayeux Tapestry, among other wonders, all of which appealed to Walker on a profoundly personal level.

Tobias and Sara on their Wedding Night, About 1520 Cologne, Germany Stained glass panel with painted details and silver stain. Picture: courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tobias and Sara on their Wedding Night, About 1520 Cologne, Germany Stained glass panel with painted details and silver stain. Picture: courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the conversations that accompany Walker's images we're treated to an insight in to his creative process, and an education.

While discussing Tobias and Sara on their Wedding Night, a stained glass window of German origin from about 1520, Walker reveals the childhood memory that first drew him to the object.

"It's an emotional thing for me because when I was a kid, my mum made red silk lampshades that she would always leave on, and when we drove home in the evening we would see a red glow coming from the room as we came up the drive.

"It was precisely that red," he says.

Tim Walker, Why not be oneself? Picture: Tim Walker Studio

Tim Walker, Why not be oneself? Picture: Tim Walker Studio

Incidentally, that red wouldn't have been possible until early glassworkers developed a technique known as 'flashing'.

Terry Bloxham, a stained glass expert at the V&A, explains that flashing, which involves coating clear glass in thin layers of coloured glass, allowed artisans to create reds that let more light through than was previously possible.

In any case, the vibrant red crops up in Walker's characteristically wild interpretations of the object.

In one, a model cocooned in a bulbous, oversized dress-a clear reference to Tobias and Sara's quilted bedhead-poses behind a giant red Perspex panel.

In another, a medieval style projection of swords, bejewelled goblets and books illuminates a nude, while a particularly arresting image depicts a couple, who appear to be dressed for work on an Arctic oil rig, posing behind a sheet of shattered glass.

Walker describes his photographs as "love letters" to the staff of the V&A.

Clearly enamoured with the institution that first acquired some of his work back in 1998, Walker speaks admiringly of those who dedicate their careers to preserving and nourishing these things of profound artistry and beauty, objects that have been passed down through the ages.

But he'd also be the first to admit that he didn't write these letters alone.

Photography on this scale is a team sport and Walker is ably supported by the best in the league. His team of co-creators is led by Shona Heath, the set designer Walker has worked with for 20 years.

What makes them tick? Heath traces their enduring partnership to a common set of formative experiences and memories.

"It was very apparent when we first met... that we shared a strong sense of nostalgia for our childhoods in the English countryside, obsessed with storybooks and drawings," says Heath.

There's no doubt the pair enjoy a special relationship and it's one that continues to produce the goods. Lil' Dragon is one of the most striking series of images in this book.

It's also one that owes its success to two unlikely yet strangely complementary ideas.

Inspired by a French snuffbox from 1745, Walker imagined an emperor or an empress walking their pet dragon at night and picking a flower that only blooms under a full moon.

Heath saw UV light.

The resulting images work not in spite of their seemingly incongruous origins, but because of them.

The blue hues of the UV light conspire with amazing makeup artistry, dreamlike props and, in some cases, long exposures, to lend the images a sense of correctness that could not have been achieved if one or other element had been missing.

The models, dressed in velvet, tulle and silk, possess an undeniably regal quality, while the dragon, prowling under the blue light, is positively menacing.

The net effect is, well, wonderful.

Just as violence begets violence, so it appears that wonder begets wonder.

By immersing himself in the V&A's ever-growing collection of objects, Tim Walker has created works of uncommon artistry and brilliance - his very own wonderful things.

Not bad for a guy who didn't think he'd be a photographer.

  • T.J Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic.
  • Wonderful Things, by Tim Walker. Bloomsbury. $59.99.
This story Artistry and brilliance first appeared on The Canberra Times.