Tim Walker

Master Photographers on Their Art.

Lily and Spiral Staircase, Whadwhan, Gujarat, India, 2005. Eglingham Children and Silhouettes, Northumberland, England, 2002. For Japanese Vogue. Karen Elson. Dolly, Fitzrovia, London, 2008. For British Vogue.

As a child I loved picture books and at school I looked at fashion magazines a lot – they were comics of photography for me. Fashion photography seemed the only photography that allows you to express fantasy, romance, dreams and escapism.


You think of photography as being a tool to tell the truth, but in fashion photography there is a different kind of honesty. You have to be brave to admit your sense of beauty, which is a revelation of your character. You reveal your innermost desires as a fashion photographer, the world you would like to exist in. This can sometimes be awkward, silly and embarrassing. It is a love letter to beauty. It can seem trite and silly on the surface. I had a huge problem with fashion photography when I started, although as a bit of dreamer it was a natural thing for me to go into. But I felt fashion was something the world could really do without, a very unnatural surface thing.


Then I was watching David Attenborough doing a programme about the bird of paradise and about the bowerbird – the amazing courtship rituals these birds have, and how the male and female display to each other. Suddenly I could see fashion as a totally naturally and vital instinct. It is about how we want to see ourselves. It connects to our dreams and our needs. This made fashion more valid to me and justified it. And there was a photography teacher who said to me, when I was grumbling about how we fixate on fashion when so many people were dying and other bad news, that it was very important because it gave people hope. Beauty is a necessary aspect to human life, to balance the other things.


I studied photography for three years then assisted in London. Then I assisted Richard Avedon in New York for a year in the early nineties. I had sent a badgering letter and it happened that his studio needed a number four assistant. I got the job, and it was like going into the army for fashion photography. There was a hierarchical, old-fashioned way of working, and I learned a lot on everything from Pirelli calendars to fashion campaigns to portraits for The New Yorker. I saw the psyche behind him taking a picture – which is what I base a lot on, particularly how not to behave to people. He thrived on tension, whereas I set out to create an easy, warm environment. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife when he was shooting but for my pictures, dramatic and with humour, I think this can’t happen if people are tense. He said he was intimidated by fashion, but I think he was slightly at war with it – he loved the drama of working with a famous model in an uncomfortable dress and high heels, against the white scoop. It creates a tension he did nothing to soften, but heightened. I can see why he did it as this was an ingredient to get the picture he wanted.


When you work commercially you can be pushed into situations where you do things that aren’t quite right, but you do it that way because somebody is paying you money for that. It is very uncomfortable. So I largely don’t try to make a real statement with the commercial work, it is a very watereddown version of what I can do editorially. Having an art director change this and change that and then you end up with something far removed from what is in your heart, you learn to give up and just interpret what the client wants. I tend to only put all my heart and soul into the editorial work and I only work with magazines where they will let me express myself 100 per cent. If you don’t compromise it will make a better picture.


I work with British and Italian Vogue a lot. They both let me do what I do. And sometimes I work with American Vogue, but it is more commercial. Italian Vogue gets the best out of photographers by giving them absolute freedom, and having a roster that won’t abuse that. And British Vogue is the same with me now, too.


Every idea I shoot for Vogue, I take to them. We then apply fashion to the idea. It’s interesting how you find your feeling for, say, a 1940s Spitfire, with a graphic quality that appeals but you can’t put your finger on, links through to the new collections where designers are looking back to the doublebreasted forties look. It all starts to marry together. And then somebody tells you about a story of a magical aeroplane that could fly through people’s houses, not affected by boundaries like walls, and I think: “That would be great, maybe we could construct that out of cardboard and polystyrene!” The seed of the idea is born and it builds up in the imagination and you spend every hour of the day thinking about how you can create it and also how you can keep the magic of that first mood, how it was when you first had the idea. You don’t want it to become heavy, overly technical.


For me, everything tends to be in camera. It has to be because you are working with people who react to the dreamscape you want to create. It wouldn’t have the magic if you couldn’t see it through the camera – you need the physicality of something there, and then tricks of smoke and lighting and gaffer tape; you construct a wobbly set that flashes up the magic for a moment. With a stills camera you can get away with a lot because you just need for it to happen from one angle for a moment.


I have a very tight group of people I tend to work with. There are stylists that really understand how to edit the clothes to be both relevant to the fashion and to the set we are designing. The set designers I perhaps connect with the most, and I try and work with the same hair and make-up also. It is very much a team effort. It is a directing challenge, but I know they all know what to do well in their areas and are well able to interpret what I am trying to say.


Photography is a bit like cooking: you take ingredients out of the cupboard and mix them up – old pictures, characters, colours, landscapes, to create something that is in your imagination that surprises you. It is all quite natural really how this happens.


My scrapbooks are a store cupboard, a larder, of ideas. Each year I probably create one new scrapbook, playing with the motifs of that period, although sometimes I delve further back. It has about 100 pages, with lots of things stuck in from all kinds of sources – Polaroids, mistakes, things torn out of places, things jotted down. It all goes in a big box and every few months I find time to stick them in. They are strange things that you couldn’t put in a frame, or on your pin board, touchy things you can’t bear to get rid of so they go in the scrapbook. I get a sense during the preparation of a shoot of how much I need – and if there is the sense something is missing I might go to the scrapbook and find things. It is a working method that has evolved over time, built out of things I didn’t know what to do with. Back when I was assisting at Avedon I was intensely homesick, aged about twenty-three, and the scrapbooks kept me connected, helped my sense of identity of who I was and where I was from.


There is a danger of being pigeon-holed and then you don’t get challenged. I would love to do more portraits and documentary. I did that at the Remembrance parade last November, just went down with a camera documenting the extraordinary people walking past. I would love to do more like that.


The images are real in their own terms; that is what they are. As a fashion photographer, you are a documentary photographer within a fantasy land.