Tim Walker: Story Teller
By Tim Walker
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
A Spitfire crashing through a bedroom. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen resting on a memento mori skull. Tilda Swinton in aviator goggles. A flying saucer accompanying a classic English fox hunt. All of these arresting images and more are in Tim Walker’s new photography collection, Tim Walker: Story Teller. Walker is a British photographer known for his work in Vogue. Most of the photography in this collection were taken from the high-end fashion magazine. The photos succeed in both telling a story (hence the title) and in transporting the viewer into an artificial fantasy world.
“Walker takes pleasure in fashion photography’s artifice, the mystique, and the charade, the luxuriant drape of cloth, the flowers, and the decoration, and above all the happiness of it all,” Kate Bush says in the introduction. With either a single shot or, in the case of fashion spreads, several shots in a sequence, Walker creates stories that draw in the viewer. Walker, a former assistant to photographer Richard Avedon, mixes art, history, fashion, and fairy tales into memorable images. The first image in the book is a case in point. Entitled “the girl with the Chanel tattoo,” it makes a teasing reference to the Steig Larsson novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the photo, model Lucy Bridges stares directly at the viewer, her pale skin offset by her bright orange hair and blue fingernails. She wears a black hat and black shirt, appearing reminiscent of Eighties New Wave music icon Boy George. A small tattoo on her wrist is the iconic Chanel symbol. (One of those things, even if one isn’t fashion-conscious, one knows the Chanel icon.) Interspersed among the photos are Tim Walker’s epigrams. “When you’re a fashion photographer everything is contrived from the start. Nothing is real. So what you’re trying to do in this fake world is to make a real moment happen by installing genuineness into the artifice.” “So I gather up the ingredients and mix them all together: photographs and illustrations, pictures from fairy tales and children’s books. Fairy tales are very sinister things. As life gets harder it is adults who sugar-coat childhood.”
The artifice and fairy-tale connection should interest anyone fascinated by the steampunk subgenre/movement/design aesthetic. Walker’s visions aren’t steampunk per se, but definitely steampunk-inspired. References to Victorian literature like Alice in Wonderland and fashion models dressed like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands show how a popular movement like steampunk can “trickle up” into haute couture. Fashion, like the art world, is a constant flux of influence and reaction. Fashion designers find inspiration in street-wear while a simultaneous process takes place, where the latest youth trend (emo, goth, punk, steampunk, etc.) find inspiration in high end fashion. This has happened countless times before. British promoter Malcolm McLaren didn’t create the Sex Pistols to overthrow the system, but to sell clothes in his London shop. Among the entourage in the Sex Pistols was Vivienne Westwood, who later came to epitomize taste and fashion among proper society. (She makes an appearance in the book.) With that in mind, one can use Story Teller as a platform for inspiration. (The volume includes pages from Walker’s own notebook, mashups of photography, illustration, and textual notes.) Seriously, someone should do something with the UFO in the fox hunt. Steampunk-meets-Bertie Wooster.
Why champion a book of high-end fashion photography while still nostril-deep in the Great Recession? Tim Walker refers to his photography as “a hidden room.” Photography can be a welcome reprieve from the everyday. These luxuriant images with beautiful figures in expensive clothes are exhilarating and inspiring. Walker creates worlds different than our own, inhabited by fairy-tale characters, clockwork mannequins, and science fictional oddities. These worlds are worth exploring, worth spending the extra time to absorb the image, and let the wonder of it overwhelm your eyes.
Out of 10/8.5, higher for Steampunk fans.