Tim Walker interview

Posted: Mon Oct 8 2012

Fashion photographer Tim Walker creates dreamlike images of giant dolls, skeleton puppets and whale-sized mackerel. Dan Jones meets London's most imaginative snapper as his new Somerset House exhibition opens

Tim Walker tells tales… Fantastical tales about gigantic glass-eyed dolls that wander the woods at dusk, or a human-sized Humpty Dumpty who has cracked open like a dinosaur egg. Walker is full of them. But unlike even the best storytellers, he's got the pictures to back them up.

Creating narratives via intricate set-pieces, the fashion photographer works on an epic, cinematic scale, with monster props, exotic locations and a line-up of supermodels and celebs who act out his stories. His images are both hyperreal and completely dreamlike - a study in glorious weirdness. Even if you don't know the name, you've probably seen Tim Walker's work on billboard ads and glossy magazine campaigns: Agyness Deyn and a cheetah co-star in the sand dunes of Namibia; a bald-headed Tilda Swinton in Iceland; a suitably loopy-looking Helena Bonham Carter in cobwebs and lace, sipping a Diet Coke through a straw; a frizzy-haired Lily Cole straddling a giant fish in a Regency drawing room (with the expression of someone who does this every Tuesday).

Walker has also shot ad campaigns for Hermès, Valentino and - for the last four years - Mulberry, for whom his current campaign stars leading models and their opposites (plump, hairy monsters) tripping through a forest.

So what is it about fantasy that inspires? 'It's escapism. It has to be,' says Walker. 'And the need to be entertained. I think every picture I take is a fantasy I would want to be in. Not so much the portraits, but definitely the set-pieces: the things I got very excited about as a kid and that I'm excited about to this day. Films, or stories - anything.'

Walker's own story is almost as interesting as his photography. Born in 1970, Walker grew up in Devon - he's not the graduate of a flashy London fashion school, but rather Exeter Art College, after scoring a work experience stint working in the archives at Vogue at the age of 19. In his early twenties, Walker found himself in New York assisting iconic photographer Richard Avedon, and by 25 he had shot his first main fashion story for Vogue. He's worked for the British, US and Italian editions ever since.

One thing has stayed constant in Walker's work - he shoots everything on film. Although there's a little digital jiggery pokery, each image - the plump monsters, the giant dolls, the dripping, whale-sized mackerel - at some point actually existed as a set. 'This is the mentality that drives all my set designers crazy and gives them a lot of work,' says Walker, 'but it makes it quite exciting. I think it is imperative for the event to happen.'

Does he think other photographers approach fashion like this? 'I don't think so,' says Walker. 'You have to raise the bar. Give yourself a challenge. Ask yourself how can one make the impossible materialise?' Walker has a history of making things materialise. Back at Exeter Art College he'd make everything himself. 'Even the pictures I was doing at college - a little narrative based on a butterfly catcher, or a chimney sweep - the images were always telling stories. They were all scenarios and moods which I storyboarded and worked through - it's exactly what I do now.' This is perhaps the reason all of Walker's images have such a distinct signature - he's not just behind the lens, but up front assembling the props.

'That's probably why the set designers' role really resonates with me,' he says, 'because at college I made a lot of things myself. I'd make a net for a butterfly catcher, I'd go and find the outfit for the chimney sweep. I couldn't find what I wanted so I'd have to make it somehow. I'm still very hands-on.'

With a major exhibition of Walker's work, sponsored by Mulberry, opening at Somerset House next week, with an accompanying Thames & Hudson book - why is his work overwhelmingly still seen as fashion photography? Isn't it art? 'That's a hard one,' he admits. 'When I was at college, the idea of fashion was more immediate to me, whereas art photography, the depth of it, was a different thing. Storytelling - fanciful storytelling - can only be told through fashion photography. It's the perfect way to play with fantasy and dreams.'

The exhibition is another Walker dream-turned-reality, with prints of his most famous works, his short films (shown via tiny camera view-finders), and his most jawdropping props - some of which, such as the giant doll, are more nightmarish than dreamlike. Be warned.