Tim Walker: ‘Story Teller’ and Somerset House Exhibition

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Tim Walker has self-confessedly declared his interest in the ‘magic of photography.’ His works are concentrated pop-up worlds that are established by binaries. There are blurs between the realms of fantasy and reality – contemporary fashion icons and costumes are projected onto and into fantastical worlds of nostalgia.

The sinister and the innocent run parallel within Walker’s fairytale dream worlds. The hazy, aesthetically beautiful sets are threatened by a presence of strangeness, or otherness. There is something invading about the photographs, but the threat is obscure and the viewer finds it difficult to say for certain what is wrong within the image. Walker’s spread for Italian Vogue (featuring the model Lindsey Wixon) challenges our pre-conceptions of how a human ought to look. An enormous doll, twice the height of the model, chases Wixon down a hill. There is the obvious threat of the un-real chasing the real, which implies that fantasy is about to catch up with and transcend reality, but there is also a slightly horrific allusion to the role-reversal between the human and the puppet. The doll’s proportions make it the puppeteer, and so the human is reduced to the role of the puppet. Walker explores this concept further in his photograph of the pair sitting at a tea table, with the foreboding doll reaching to pour tea for the human. This startling re-writing of human control provokes an atmosphere of unease within the image. This tenseness is heightened further by the smashed plates upon the tearoom floor, which suggest a struggle within this re-appropriation of human and puppet control. What throws the viewer however, is Walker’s unfailing ability to make his images beautiful. Threat is softened by aesthetics.

The photographer bathes his scenes in dreamy, kaleidoscopic lights, and makes use of exquisite costumes and beautiful faces. There is always, as a result, a balance between the beautiful and innocent, and the threatening and sinister. The models that poise upon ladders, draped in swathes of chiffon, appear as fragile fairies; yet they are frozen in time and it appears that at any moment they could fall. There is definitely an implied instability within Walker’s work. He encapsulates fairytale worlds through the click of the button, so that the freeze-frame is preserved forever – a kind of ironic happy ending. However, the set up of the scenes, the lights, the costumes, and the models – are all evidence that these fairytale worlds are merely creations, and photographs are the only way that perfect fantasies can be collected for eternity.

Walker has the power to enchant and possess – his images are aesthetically enticing not simply because they are beautiful, but because they cause us to consider what makes them beautiful. Walker spray-paints horses and kittens gold, blue and candy-floss pink, which creates a luscious Marie-Antoinette style decadence, and yet also appears bizarre and alien. Similarly, he turns models into birds, fairies, insects, and swans – as though being human, within a human environment, is not enough. In order to create the aesthetic masterpiece, he must bathe within and exaggerate our notions of beauty, and project them onto the human form. Humans become dolls and fairies, whilst animals are spray painted to appear fantastical – the golden horse has become Pegasus. It is as though Walker has taken snap shots of the world through a kaleidoscope – which has rendered it intensely unrealistic in its appearance, but also extremely desirable. The surreal and the abnormal, even within a sinister underlying context, are presented in a way that is enticing and even spellbinding.

The glossy Tim Walker spread in this December’s Vogue has a psychedelic quality; the culmination of glitter and rainbows reminds me of The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’ There is a sense of disturbance and distortion, but this strangeness is visually appealing. Walker’s ‘eccentricity is part of the fantasy, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party’ according to the Independent. Wonderland is a fabulous comparison to Walker’s fantastical worlds – where otherness and perverse strangeness are normalized through a child-like utopia.
Walker’s first exhibition in five years ‘Story Teller’ runs until the 27th January 2013 in the East Wing Gallery of Somerset House, London. Thames and Hudson have released a picture book under the same name; collecting together Walker’s weird and wonderful images.

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