Tim Walker: Story Teller


23 October 2012

Hidden among the models of skeletons and fiddle-playing crickets at the Tim Walker exhibition in Somerset House is a photograph of Tim Burton. Burton is dressed as Santa Claus, his hands grabbing at a bin bag that is splitting open from the mass of the skull inside of it.

There are curious parallels between Walker and Burton. Walker - a fashion photographer who started his career as an intern at Vogue House - is renowned for his elaborate set design, and the oversized props and surreal imagery that have come to characterise his shoots for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and the New Yorker. Burton, the ex-Disney animator turned director, deals in the fantastical and nightmarish, his films pitched somewhere between Fantasia and Goya. Both men explore the visual language of dreams; both men shoot fairytales.

Burton's films are modern fairytales, a seeming antidote to the fairies and dreaming kingdoms of classic Disney. Yet films like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare before Christmas - filled with pumpkins, knives and the macabre - are only outwardly Gothic. Underneath, they are sweet. Edward Scissorhands, an automaton built by Vincent Price, yearns for acceptance and suburban life; while Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and ruler of Halloween Town, falls in love with Christmas. The horror is a cover for the schmaltz.

Walker's work is a neat reversal of this idea. The photographs on display at Storyteller are rich in a macaroon palette, while clothes by Valentino, Versace and Lanvin transform Walker's models into fairytale princesses. Yet Walker's skill is in creating a sense of dread that extends beyond this sheen. One photograph shows the model Małgosia Bela laid facedown on a bed, naked but for the shining red shoes that buckle up around her ankles. Over her shoulder, a swollen snail slimes over the sheets towards her.

Another image sees Bela stood over a collapsed nutcracker soldier, her hand cradling the man's rifle. To her left are the approaching shadows of more soldiers, their rifles pointing at her head and groin. If Burton's fairytales are modern, Walker's photographs owe more to the sexuality and violence of traditional morality stories; the kind of old tale where Red Riding Hood eats her grandmother's meat and blood, and the Frog Prince is turned into a handsome prince not with a kiss, but by being dashed against a wall.

More than any other fashion photographer, Walker's work is filmic and infused with a sense of motion. His images are not so much about what is caught on camera, as they are about what might happen next. Walker has worked in film before - his first short, The Lost Explorer, premiered in 2010 - yet he downplays the cinematic quality of his work: "films are story-led, whereas photographs are mood-led; they're completely different careers really." Yet the evidence on display at Storyteller contradicts him. One photograph, styled by Giles Deacon, shows the model Karen Elson reclined in bed, a crocodile slipping up under the covers. It is hard not to imagine what happens next.

This sense of narrative leads to the one slight mis-step in an otherwise compelling and rich exhibition. Dotted around Walker's photographs are examples of the props and models he uses in his shoots. As novel as it may be to see a vast Shirley Temple doll or a jangling skeleton leering down from the ceiling, the props seem devoid of context. In Walker's photography, they are rich in possibility. Sat in an exhibition, they are static; robbed of the dynamism that Walker's photography once bestowed upon them.