Tim Walker's photography creates a distinctive fairytale world where spitfires crash through walls, crocodiles and beetles sneak into bedrooms and models journey into the woods with giant dolls and fight with gigantic bees. He has invited some of the biggest names to join him in this magical world, photographing Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen, Agyness Deyn, Vivienne Westwood and Karlie Kloss to name a few.
His new exhibition Story Teller, sponsored by Mulberry, at Somerset House is an insight into this world, as it displays his iconic photographs, props from his shoots and behind the scenes films. Tim Walker chatted to Grazia at the opening of the exhibition about his relationship with Kate Moss, Lily Cole and his other muses and what he thinks is beautiful...
How did you decide to divide the exhibition into seperate themes?
The east wing is a series of different rooms and normally when you’re a photographer you get a great big white space, so the decision to divide the rooms into moods was dictated by the architecture of the building. We wanted to do a mood in each room as there are lots of different chapters to the pictures I take. Before I’ve concentrated on the lighter side, but there is a depth to the darkness and this is something I’ve been exploring over the past five years.
How did you choose which pictures to put in the exhibition?
You have this instinctive thing as a photographer, you know what you’re pleased with personally. It’s like a gradient bell, it rings louder. This picture (pointing to an image of a young girl in a room with insects) I took a few weeks ago and nobody has ever seen that picture so it is a totally new thing. It wasn't a fashion shoot, it was taken for this show. I knew I wanted to tell the story about a little girl who goes into a house that’s occupied by giant insects. We started out with her on the bed and I asked her how she would react to each situation. She said if there was a giant bee on my bed I’d go under it.
Is that how you work with your models?
I always ask them what they would do. Kristen McMenamy with these giant wasps, they were physically there. I said Kristen I want you to be heroic and in battle with them, how would you portray that? She was moving and rocking them and it was the rocking them that made the movement and made that come alive. You look at the scenario, that’s why it’s so important that the actual thing is there and why I don’t go into the idea of CGI because then how can the person react? You need to see it. That’s what the show is all about for me. I hate the idea of photography being a hidden secret, so you can see the artistry of the set designer who made these insects and see that it is an art in itself. I wanted to celebrate that, so people can see how things happen.
That is what the behind the scenes films are about, it shows how people move, what they are doing and how things are on a shoot and again it educates people. There is no point in being a photographer and putting a show on if you’re not being open about something.
How do you choose the models you shoot?
I have always been attracted to people that have a beauty that’s not obvious and I think every model I have ever worked with are the survivors and we respect them because they have a beauty that isn’t obvious. Someone like Kate Moss who I adore photographing I respect her because she was tiny. I think she is the best thing ever. She came onto the scene right after an army of supermodels and you have to admire her longevity. The fact that she has survived and has become the most beautiful model in the world. I think that is incredible. She has stuck with her uniqueness and made it work.
As with Stella Tennant, everyone thought she looked like a boy, and Kristen McMenamy, she looked like a ghost. I’m not about perpetuating a clichéd beauty. I am interested in individuality because I think what is valuable in anyone whether you are man, woman, famous, not famous is authenticity. No one should be prevented from being beautiful because they are short, or tall, or have red hair, or they are black, Indian or Chinese.
Current Muse Xiao Wen…
I think Xiao Wen is one of the most beautiful girls I’ve photographed, she is a current muse because she is incredible in front of the camera. She is a different kind of beauty because she is something different from what we’re used to seeing, which is really exciting. So that’s how I choose people, finding a beauty. Karen Elson when she started used to be called an alien but now she is considered one of the biggest beauties of our time. There was an army of brilliant photographers who said you know what, she is beautiful. No she doesn’t look like Claudia Schiffer, but that is great. Anyone who is perpetuating a repetition of what has already been is wrong - we will never move forward. You have to create a new world, and new people to populate it.
Why did you not include your popular images of Lily Cole in the show?
I had a show five or six years ago at the design museum which was my first major retrospective and that was of images from my beginning as a photographer up to 2008. I worked with Lily a lot between 2006 and 2008 and since then I haven’t worked with her because she went on to become an actress and went to Cambridge and did a degree. It’s a new era. I adore Lily and I have taken some of my best pictures with her, but that was a time and this is a new time and it is about the next chapter. She is a very close friend of mine and I am very fond of her as a person. The first time I saw her she turned up at my house in her school uniform as a 14 year old and I watched her turn into this great beauty and I am so proud of her.
So your connection with your models is very important to you?
I am very, very close to the people I work with. You have to be, you have to have a connection to someone. Like this little thing here, (pointing to his new images of a young girl in a room with insects) Lucan Gillispie (12), she is a child and I worked with her as my lead. The window for you when you look in a picture is always the human, that’s what makes you dream. If she wasn’t there it would be a dead place you wouldn’t be able to dream in it, but it’s the human link. She becomes you. What she is doing is fundamental, so the more genuine it is the better.
With someone like Stella Tennant, the fact that an old frame was sitting in the corner of the house and she stepped through it, that was her genuine gesture. That’s what she is giving and I can’t direct that. Kristen McMenamy wrangling with a spider, that is Kristen. She has managed to make a giant spider animated and you can only get that by having a close relationship with the people you work with and communicating with them and feeling them and understanding their insecurities, vulnerabilities and strengths.
Tim Walker Story Teller is showing in the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House from 18 October- 27 January 2013. Admission is free and for further information visit Somersethouse.org.uk.