Reading Tim Walker's Pictures

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Subject: Art » Photography
Last updated: 03/09/2011
Tags: art photography, fashion photography, photography, romanticism, surrealism


This piece of writing (Picture A) and the accompanying photograph (Picture B) – both by Tim Walker – is the foreword to the book 'Tim Walker Pictures'. It is a very brief yet a wholesome and accurate introduction to one of the most evocative and imaginative fashion photographers (read story tellers) of the post Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson era.

Tim Walker's dream-like fashion shots have entranced the readers of Vogue and other magazines, month after month, for more than a decade. Extravagant and surreal staging and romantic motifs characterize his unmistakable and unique photographic hand writing.

The spontaneity and the simplicity of the foreword explore Walker's effervescent romantic vision and seemingly endless surrealist ideas that invariably creep up from beneath the surface of his imagery.

"The dreamy and poetic nature and the apparent negligence to reality in the writing, point us to a man who seems to be waging a calm battle against the perilous and uncertain times we are in by simply Dreaming. Just like the Surrealists, through their writings and artworks, deliberately defied the linear, rational discourses they held responsible for the catastrophes of war in their time. And just as Andre Breton, the obvious leader of the self-willed and revolutionary art movement, Surrealism considered the surreal as a dialogue with the other – with what is encountered by way of dreams, coincidences, correspondences, the marvelous, the uncanny, a reciprocal exchange connecting conscious and unconscious thought."(Caws, 2004:15)

"For Breton, the possibility of arrival at a point of convergence (in both the perceived object and the receptive mind) of the daily and specific on the one hand and the marvelous and universal on the other, has the ability to modify, often profoundly, our perception and experience of the world. For us, such an encounter has the potential to alter the way we read. Crucially, this entails never placing a prior grid of theory over the text or the work of art. Whatever interpretation is relevant comes into being through our confrontation with the other in the work itself." (Caws, 2004:16)

Such Bretonian ideals form the basis of a large number of Walker‟s images where there is no boundary to the imagination, where reality and fantasy fuse to form no division between themselves and where juxtaposition defies logic.

"As the Surrealists often asserted, the only bounds to our world are those which are self-imposed by the limitations of our own imagination and its verbal and visual expression." (Caws, 2004:17)

"The editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, Franca Sozzani, remembers her introduction to Tim's work: “The first picture I ever saw of Tim‟s was of a butterfly catcher – nothing at all to do with fashion – more an emotional mood, a poetic imagination. This was the only picture I needed to see to understand and commission him over the next ten years. Sometimes you see one picture and immediately you know the heart of that photographer, becausethere is an honesty displayed there, an individual voice. Its what the photographer is saying to himself that matters, rather than what he says to me.” “When I am thinking about what type of pictures I want to get”, says Tim, “I think I want a series of pictures that really means something to me, from the heart, then I'll believe in them. Believe in them when I am taking them and believe in them when I am printing them. What comes from the heart touches heart...” " (Walker, 2008:32)

The description of Tim's picture by Sozzani and that of the kind of images he wants to make by Walker himself follows a very Romantic notion of an individual voice, of passion and of deep sentiment.

In general, definitions of Romanticism formulated during the early nineteenth century are so contradictory that they cannot be reduced to a single coherent system. The underlying motives of the Romantics are too complex to be encapsulated in a simple formula. Moreover, there is no great paradigmatic Romantic masterpiece. There is no single work of art which exemplifies the aims and ideals of the Romantics as does, for example, David’s Oath of the Horatii those of Neo-classical painters.

"Despite the lack of a concrete definition one can identify almost effortlessly the romantic soul behind Tim Walker's pictures. That is the way they make one feel. Baudelaire said that ,Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling." (Honour, 1979:14)

"The Romantics sought to express ideals which could be sensed only in the individual soul and lay beyond the bounds of logical discourse. The Romantic followed a mysterious way which, in Novalis's phrase, 'leads inwards' – and sometimes led to solipsism."(Honour, 1979:16)

How else could one rationalize these images of Tim Walker : a blue elephant, a purple horse, pastel hued doves and cats, ice-cream on a chandelier, a stream in full spate inside a bed / sitting room.

Surrealist Ideas and Romantic Visions

The streak of surrealism in Tim's pictures is inescapable, informs Robin Muir, the photographic historian and former Picture Editor of British Vogue, in the introduction titled 'Paradise Regained' of the book Tim Walker Pictures. He continues,

"... as if you couldn‟t guess by the streaks of bacon ascending a model's legs chased by a spider crab or the torn sheets of paper out of which heads pop unexpectedly through. This is the genial surrealism of Magritte rather than the ambiguous, sexually charged tableaux of Dali. At its most intoxicating, it is that peculiar British notion of surrealism as slapstick, endless summer fun." (Walker, 2008:10)

The multi – coloured ladders by the dozen stacked up against a stately home for no apparent reason, the English gentleman in black with a black umbrella perched on one of the ladders and the warm light from the sun beaming down this illogical setting make no sense (Picture 1). But what it does is, it opens doors of possibilities, ideas of fun and it makes one dream; a dream full of moments of effortless joy away from the strangling realities of the grim times we live in.

As if finding over three hundred winter aran jumpers at the beginning of June, cannibalizing them and cutting them to fit the panels of each car to create vintage Wolsleys from aran knit made sense (Picture 2)! All this in the middle of fields in Suffolk.

"By way of illustration, if we take some examples of surrealist imagery which demonstrate typical ways of revising habitual thinking and seeing, it is possible to draw up some characteristics in the work of some of its painters. Surrealist paintings often exhibit many of the same traits: a deeply mysterious atmosphere, with unexplained elements that seem to refer to something else seen, read or imagined beyond the canvas :

In a dusky urban setting with no human presence, where the scale and perspective of buildings, vistas and objects follows an unearthly logic, a single red glove is pinned to a wall, signaling something yet seeming as void as the gaze of a statue's head that floats beside it." (Caws, 2004:25) (Picture 5)

Unexplained elements and strange juxtapositions is something of a trade mark for Tim Walker. He often revisits a theme which he calls Inside / Outside, creating such pleasantly confusing images that evoke nothing but wonder. It is worth mentioning here that the mysterious environment in Surrealist imagery is not so much about making the viewer pleasant and comfortable. In the case of Walker, it is. He turns this abnormal environment into fun which gives the looker a sense of ease. Yet the process in both cases is similar. Things sit in places where they‟re not supposed to be.

Take for instance his „Boat in Library‟ (picture 6)

"Writing of this shoot, Paolo Lavezzari noted that “Tim likes to clear out, recompose and confuse interiors and exteriors. In their paradox, in their careful exaggeration his pictures almost become a wish, an invitation to look with new eyes. There are no special effects to surprise us with because the wonder is in our eyes as we look for it ...” " (Walker, 2008:68)

'It Rained Outside So We Camped Inside' (Picture 7) is another iconic and wonderful example of this theme which wears a certain Surrealist stamp owing to the strangeness of how characteristically varying objects are placed together as neighbours.

"Vogue was intrigued by Tim's jeu d’ esprit : “Maybe it is all about the photographer's fake game: to think and experiment. If the house must be a cocoon, so be it – the base camp for the permanent traveler, the high altitude bivouac on the fourth storey. If the escape you wish for isn't feasible “outside”, you can organize it “inside” with a bit of imagination. That is where the adventure begins.” "(Walker, 2008:68)

Inside / Outside (Picture 8) is the notion of opposites attracting or repelling to create strange fictive landscapes both inside and, as here, out – of – doors.

"The set designer Andy Hillman has put it well: “You always return with a bump to the real world from Planet Walker and like a long haul flight, there is always some time needed to re – adjust. But you know you'll get the call: “I've got this idea...” "(Walker, 2008:162)

This love of adventure and dreaming, has time and again, taken Tim back to his childhood storybooks. He has used the surreal aspect of fairy tales in a number of his pictures. The extraordinary world that (Lewis Carroll‟s) Alice finds herself in has been one that Walker has gone back to on many shoots and stories: the surreal landscapes, shifts in scale and the blurring of the boundaries between the natural world and the man–made, the inside and the outside. (Picture 9 & Picture 10)

"After many trips with Tim and entourage, the plucky model, Lily Cole has clearly learnt not to bat an eyelid. In 'Lily Cole On Fish Hook' (Picture 9) Lily is cast as a fly thrown out to attract a big fish. Says Lily, “You are hanging on a giant fish hook above a lake; your hair is frizzed out; you are wearing three multi-coloured tutus. What can this be other than a Tim Walker shoot? The best thing about working with Tim is the magic and the madness. I don't get many other excuses in life to board a fish hook!” " (Walker, 2008:269)

"Lily again: “Fashion often blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy but in Tim's world imagination pervades all – until you can't really believe that it did all happen.” " (Walker, 2008:269)

It seems like a constant journey – for Tim while making the picture and for us while viewing it – in and out of dreams and like he mentioned in the foreword (Picture A), he seems to create and show us, what he sees in the way of dreams or in his sub- conscious mind. It is this discovery of the sub-conscious or unconscious that remained a true passion for Breton and the group of Surrealists.

Dream is, of course, commonly considered as the peak of the unconscious mind‟s experience, and a resource for the conscious analysis of that experience. The opening up of the field of possibilities was never more exciting to the Surrealists than in dream phenomena, whether interpreted collectively or singly. Far beyond the dull colours of the real, as the young Surrealists perceived them, stretched this glorious uncontrollable openness, as far as the mind could reach.

"As Aragon writes in Une Vague de reves : “there are other relationships besides the real that the mind can grasp and which are just as primary, such as chance, illusion, the fantastic, the dream. These diverse species are united and reconciled in a genre which is Surrealism.” " (Caws, 2004:21)

'The dull colours of the real' are for the rational and conscious minds. Perhaps that is why Tim likes to submerge so often into the subconscious and perhaps, to overcome the hesitations of the rational and conscious mind the resort to 'Automatic Writing' was widespread during the art movement of Surrealism. The unleashing of the full potential of the unconscious was the point of these experiments, which evolved into sleep séances to induce automatic speech while in a trance. The poet Desnos was the hero of these sessions. He was particularly noted for his ability to fall asleep at almost any time and in any place and to continue speaking, writing, acting and responding while in this trance-like condition.

"In a café, amid the sound of voices, the bright light, the jostling, Robert Desnos need only close his eyes, and he talks, and among the steins, the saucers, the whole ocean collapses with its prophetic racket and its vapours decorated with long oriflammes." (Caws, 2004:20)

The use of animal motifs (specially butterflies, Pictures 11, 12 & 13) in Walker‟s images and the idea of 'man as animal' also spring from the bag of surreal thoughts. Butterfly motifs constantly recur in surrealist imagery such as the ones seen in Pictures 14 and 15.

"The key figure of surrealism and fashion Elsa Schiaparelli doesn't seem much to have influenced Tim in 'Coco Rocha And Lion Chair' (Picture 16.1), but her friends Meret Oppenheim and Rene Magritte have. Especially Magritte in his later years. This fur- covered chair with a lion's tail is taken from his drawings for Une simple histoire d’ amour (1958)." (Walker, 2008:254)

In her essay, Corpus Delicti Rosalind Krauss likens an image by Brassai (Picture 17) of a naked human form to a beast and an unknown animal. She writes :

"In describing, as I have, this process of seeing as if – the breasts seen as if horns, the arm as if ears – I might seem merely to be saying that the photographers operating within the circuit of surrealism adopted just that predilection for metaphor of an extravagant and unexpectedly irrational kind that was so dear to the surrealist poets and so tirelessly described in the various tracts issued by the movement. Further, since the surrealists' enthusiastic discovery of the fantastic bestiary of Lautreamont's 1869 prose poem, Les Chants de Maldoror, the exploration of the thought of man-as- animal had become a commonplace of surrealism." (Krauss and Livingston, 1986: 60)

Just as unexpectedly irrational, in Tim's pictures, are the animals that one sees in human domain. It seems that there is little distinction between the human and animal kingdom, where we are supposed to be and where they are supposed to play, and sometimes who we are and how they differ from us. (Pictures 16.1, 16.2, 18, 19, 20, 21)

'The found object' often evokes the uncontrolled events of chance and the suggestion of reawakened memories. The all important notion of the found object hinges on that which one comes across by chance.

"You find something in the outer world‟, says Breton, "which responds to a question in the inner world that you had not consciously asked.‟ (Caws, 2004:22)

One such image of objects (Picture 22) among many others by Walker, – The gardener's mud laden glove and his souvenirs – evokes exactly this nostalgia which is surreal and romantic at the same time. It evokes a memory, a memory of the past, it evokes questions, questions enquiring about what might have been. You tie strings to the object (in this case a glove) which lead you on to other objects, events and people. It is like a spark which ignites a whole wild fire of thought and imagination. This nostalgia is perhaps the only means to the fantasy called 'time travel'.

"The most sustained engagement with the object would emerge in the work of the American artist Joseph Cornell, a traveler alongside the Surrealist movement. Here he describes one of his typical sightings while out walking: Exhibition of miscellaneous objects found in trunks of sailors – shells, toysnake, whales' teeth, beads (exotic), a butterfly, box primitively constructed passé partout with wallpaper, glass, broken paper cover.

Cornell was a true master framer, bringing back to life in his mysterious shadow boxes all the haunting quality of nineteenth century Romanticism – its singers, dancers and spirit. With these emblems of a bygone era, which mark the haunting, ephemeral quality of what we have most cherished, Romanticism is reworked and relived. “We are”, said Breton, “the tail of Romanticism, but how prehensile!” " (Caws, 2004:23)

As an intern at Vogue in the early 1990s, Tim explored and studied the magazine‟s substantial holdings of Cecil Beaton's negatives. Exposure to Vogue's history led to a deep and lasting knowledge and understanding of the British cultural history, specially the 30s, 40 and 50s, the era when Beaton flourished.

"Through the heritage of Vogue, he has re-established tangible links to the romantic strain that marked out Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton as latter day Gainsboroughs and Zoffanys. He shares with them too a romantic “spirit of place”, most usually rural and paradisal, which is what Tim‟s idea of a past England is.‟ (Walker, 2008:8)

" “This attachment to the idea of what Britain once was – even what Britain should have been – is, I believe, the key to many of Tim Walker‟s photographs.”, writes Robin Muir. He continues, “And what, in the childhood storybooks of C.S. Lewis, E.H. Nesbitt, T.H. White and Arthur Ransome, it meant: loyalty and camaraderie; long golden summers, an unquenchable thirst for adventure and, as a backdrop, the constancy of the English landscape and the inconstancy of the English climate.” " (Walker, 2008:9)

Tim would venture out with his camera, walk along the countryside and photograph the people he knew. The love of capturing such idyllic, Arcadian and pastoral themes and settings marks him as a quintessential Romantic.

"Muir adds, “Photographic history aside, Tim's episodic, narrative fashion stories and use of bold colour looks back to the wartime films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and their own romantic attachment to the English landscape. But mostly, I think, they owe a debt to the early 1940s and Britain's Neo-Romantic artists. Often self-taught, their paintings are as earthy as if ploughed up from the land itself.” " (Walker, 2008:9)

"Being British for Italian Vogue in 2005 is perhaps the apogee of Tim's sense of belonging and his response to the notion of keeping identity alive in an era that neither cares for it nor needs it (he remains the most unfashionable of fashion photographers)." (Walker, 2008:9)

An iron bedstead and its occupant perch on a signal-red Jaguar Saloon (Picture 23); Two of them with the bedsteads camping in the woods (Picture 24); A family watching David Lean‟s Brief Encounter (1945) projected on the huge outer wall of their country house in Devon (Picture 25).

" “I'm just cutting and pasting various British icons together to create a montage of pure Britishness”, Tim explained, “these photographs are rather romantic visions of an England past.” " (Walker, 2008:9)

As the Neo-Romantics proved, this kind of introspection occurs in times of uncertainty.

"The high-minded spirit of German nationalism at the time of the War of Liberation – the Freiheitskrieg as it was called – is beautifully conveyed in a painting (Picture 26), by Casper David Friedrich‟s friend G.F. Kersting, of three Lutzower – members of a regiment of volunteers which included several notable writers and artists. They are dressed in what was supposed to be theold German fashion, with floppy hats; they have long blond hair and moustaches and are placed in a symbolically German oakwood." (Honour, 1979:221)

"Friedrich expressed his response to the war more subtly. Yet the meaning of The ‘Chasseur’ in the Forest (Picture 27) was easily recognized by a reviewer when it was first exhibited in 1814: “A raven perching on an old branch sings the death song of a French Chasseur who is wandering alone through the snow-covered evergreen forest.” " (Honour, 1979:221)

Muir continues, "Well, perhaps we're in dark hours now: spiralling acts of destruction appear commonplace, so too inhumanitarian gestures, the repression of basic human rights, the obliteration of our natural resourses, the increasing vagaries of the global climate, and, as one commentator recently put it “the sickness of our popular media”. Is it any wonder that the brightest among us look backwards? " (Walker, 2008:9)



Hard times call for extreme measures. While some may choose to approach life in the rational, logical manner; both the Surrealists and the Romantics lived by a different school of thought. They held responsible rational thinking for the social and political disturbances of their age and responded by initiating a new, irrational train of thought with a view to create a new world. Their art was driven by that which was often not the norm and offered an alternate view or interpretation of reality, a window into the realm of possibility. Though their resulting works were very different in terms of physical attributes, it is the process of creation, conception and reason behind its creation that ties them together.

Tim Walker approaches photography with the same “to heck with convention” attitude. His art has a hint of silent rebellion, though not as popularly known as the rebellious nature of the Surrealists and Romantics. In spiteful times where malicious politics and greed rule the world he makes us dream of merrier times through fantasy, imagination and through his childlike innocence – Peter Pan refused to grow up. Tim Walker refuses to mature.

The child in him is a constant as is evident from his idea of "Running Away From Home‟ (Picture 28) or a much later work for Japanese Vogue (Picture 29) where he dressed up a house for a party by projecting floral motifs on it!


Muir puts it very aptly,

"If Tim Walker did not exist, like Beaton all those years ago, and like Voltaire's God, it would be necessary to invent him. How could you fail to respond to a young man whose calling cards many years ago, as recalled by Robin Derrick, British Vogue's Creative Director, was “a portfolio full of pictures of fairies at the bottom of his garden”? As storm clouds seem to gather around us almost daily, those that have watched his work mature – while he thankfully refuses to – are delighted to continue failing to fail to respond. And to enter the world of Tim Walker with increasing willingness." (Walker, 2008:10)




Caws, M.A. (2004) Surrealism. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Honour,H. (1979) Romanticism. London: Penguin Books Limited.

Krauss,R. and Livingston, J. (1986) L’Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism.USA: Abbeville Press and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Walker, T. (2008) Tim Walker Pictures. London: teNeues Publishing Group.

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