(The following review was selected as the winner of the inaugural 2012 Meller Merceux Prize for Art Criticism. A big thank you to the Meller Merceux Gallery and the Edgar Wind Society for Art History!)
Tim Walker: Story Teller
18th October 2012 – 27th January 2013
East Wing Galleries, Somerset House, London.
Tim Walker, the eponymous fashion photographer at the heart of Somerset House’s current exhibition Tim Walker: Story Teller, is the quirky darling of the fashion world. His meticulously ornate images, with their lush Baroque detailing and gauzy use of light, often appear to be staged on the set-piece of some pastel fairy-tale. Populated with celebrities, models, and the finest haute couture, Walker’s photographs are lauded for transforming sartorial bibles such as Vogue and W into whimsical picture books.
In Story Teller, the bright-yet-rustic East Wing of Somerset House plays the perfect host to Walker’s world. Just like in the photographs themselves, the exhibition space is beautifully curated; indeed, with its wooden floors, high ceilings and pretty fireplaces, it is exactly the sort of interior in which Walker’s narratives unfold. Emphasising this throughout the exhibition are the numerous props transported from the images themselves – a crashed fighter jet, a swan- shaped sailboat, snails sucking the walls – which form the centrepieces of a number of the rooms and further materialise Walker’s playful vision.
These opening rooms are particularly beautiful, showcasing some of Walker’s more spectacular images: the moody blues of Fantasia on a nautical theme (2010) and David White and his swan (2010); the ornamental porcelains of Laura McCone and Luke Field-Wright as floral figures (2010) and Frida Gustavsson as Meissen figurine (2011); and the pastel fantasy of the Rococo Olga Shearer on blue horse (2007).
Walker’s best photographs are undoubtedly those that take place in these elaborately dressed settings, like the sort of empty, impossible houses that one might find through the looking glass. He often draws on a Carrollian sense of absurdity, innocence, and displacement, as well as a similar fetishisation of childish naivety. Lucan Gillespie takes tea with the honey bee (2012) is almost quintessentially Alice-in-Wonderland-esque, with its primly-dressed blonde waif and her anthropomorphic tablemate.
As compelling as these richly decorated photographs are, however, when Walker strays from this formula – as he does in the second half of the show – his work often falls flat. His celebrity portraits are, for the most part, generic. Lacking his characteristic set dressing (most are shot against a minimalist white background), they also lack his defining imaginative vision and aesthetic signature. When they do stand out, such as some strikingly geometric images of Tilda Swinton and a series of slapstick portraits of Monty Python, it is due to the charismatic force of their subjects and not their creator. Arguably, this is perfect for magazines, in which the photographer is merely a medium for the celebrity at hand and the photograph an accompanying illustration to a written piece, but the associated desire to flip past the images to reach some more substantial content is no less present inside the gallery walls.
Unfortunately, substance is hard to find in Story Teller. Later rooms show Walker departing further from his trademark style with a road sign-themed fashion shoot, which is as dull and one- dimensional as its inspiration. Similarly, a collection of photographs involving a UFO in quotidian situations is unremarkable, while another involving living dolls is playful but too literal and clichéd.
Even his most striking and successful images, however, despite their beauty and charms, function on this entirely superficial level. In many ways, they are like ornamental china or decorative wallpaper: beautiful, delicate, fragile, but, ultimately, pure surface. While the exhibition tries to eke out loftier themes – death, youth, nostalgia, contemplation of the digital age – Walker’s work rarely ignites serious contemplation.
As a result, as visually exciting as the exhibition can be, it never manages to transcend the circumscription of ‘fashion photography’. Despite aesthetic and theoretical evocations of a number of modern and contemporary ‘art’ photographers, such as Loretta Lux, Cindy Sherman, and even Francesca Woodman, the images that make up Story Teller lack the same emotional and intellectual resonance. Nothing about Walker’s photographs challenges the viewer, conceptions of photography, or the established lexicon of beauty; indeed, some – such as a shoot with Agyness Deyn in the desert accompanied by a tribesman and a cheetah – smack of the kind of primitivist, orientalist, and problematically racist tropes that sadly still pervade the fashion industry.
The story told by Story Teller, then, is the same one being told in numerous magazines across the world, though perhaps here regaled in more dulcet tones and with a more florid vocabulary. Ultimately, however, it is all style and no substance. This does not mean that it is not captivating, simply that its charms are limited. Walker’s photographs are visual candyfloss: frothy wisps of coloured nothing, puffed up to grand proportions, they dissolve under the slightest scrutiny – but that is not to say that the momentary sugar rush doesn’t have its appeal.