The Tim Walker: Story Teller exhibition at Somerset House is the perfect, whimsical way to spend a cold Winter afternoon. The imposing Neo-Classical stone façade and cobbled courtyard (complete with a Christmas tree and skating rink) could have come straight out of one of Walker’s photographs, which are heavy with nostalgia and tinged with wonder and fantasy. The exhibition presents some of Walker’s most recognisable fashion photographs alongside a selection of props, including oversize insects playing string instruments, a wooden swan boat, eerie mechanical puppets and an almost life-size Spitfire.
Walker’s aesthetic is particularly British, sitting somewhere between Wonderland and Narnia, with a dash of Puck theatricality thrown in for good measure. Girls in fancy frocks lounge in the grounds and ballrooms of stately homes, play in flower-strewn meadows and take walks in the woods with oversize dolls. These elaborate, theatrical sets are rooted in childhood dreams and fairy tales, and the tableaux have the quality of film stills – each one infers a sense of narrative, an unfinished story where the models and clothes are a part but not the focus.
There is a striking contrast between the photographer’s editorials and his portraits. They are significantly less elaborate, offering up contemporary icons against a plain white background – Hamish Bowles holds an orchid, Helena Bonham Carter is dressed as a the Queen whilst sipping a can of coke, Alexander McQueen leans on a cigarette-smoking skull, Grace Coddington is just-about discernible under a cloud of frizzy red hair. Walker’s well-honed sense of wit creates a wry comment on celebrity, revealing the persona behind the veneer.
Of course, this is fashion, so everything is beautiful – but not in a stylised or artificial way. Eccentricity reigns supreme – for Walker it’s not about digital manipulation or post-production retouching; the sets are painstakingly created in collaboration with craftsmen, artists and stylists. His wonder of photography permeates every image, bringing seemingly impossible and imaginative worlds to life. As he himself admits, ‘everything is contrived. You try to make your own real moments. And then you go home and make sense of it all’. In many ways, Walker’s work harks back to the earliest ambitions of photography – revealing unknown worlds to the masses and opening a window onto the unknown. In an unstable world, his escapist dreamscapes are a welcome and relief.
Tim Walker: Story Teller is at Somerset House, East Wing Galleries until 27 January 2013 (free entry).