Purely by coincidence, around a week before visiting Tim Walker: Story Teller, I met a rather dapper looking middle-aged gentleman who once worked on building the props that truly "make" Walker's most iconic images. When he finally revealed to me that he had had a hand in the creation of the oversized, "Ray Harryhausen-esque" skeleton Walker used in 2008, I was nearly overcome with excitement. The jubilant mood however was soon shattered by one simple question: "That was a Ralf Lauren shoot, wasn't it?" He scowled at me as if to say "Typical girl, only interested in pretty dresses". I scowled back as if to say "Foolish old man – his photos are adverts, and the designer is key!" Suffice to say we will not be lifelong friends. Now, having visited the exhibition of collected props and photographs at Somerset House, I can safely say that neither of us was right; but, more importantly, neither of us was truly wrong.
Firstly, I can think of no better location for an exhibition of Walker's fashion photography than Somerset House – home to the main proceedings of London Fashion Week. This brilliant building has hosted the world's most sought-after models and designers: this show is standing on the British fashion Holy Land. Presented in the newly refurbished East Wing, the whole tone is knowingly cool.
Entering the exhibition you are initially greeted with a full wall of text: it is interesting, but if you are not au-fait with Walker's images, I'd recommend skipping it. The wonder and whimsy of his images don't need such an in-depth introduction as they speak volumes on their own; in fact, the full-size replica spitfire in the first room has such an impact on its own that I'd like to consider it as the start of the exhibition proper. This spitfire was used in 2009 for a Burberry shoot – the relationship between prop and designer here being of upmost importance, as very few images could be more representatively British. This über-Britishness is further explored through images of Agnes Deyn as 1940s colonialist – I suppose in a non-racist way, but I have the feeling a few art history students I know could create a race-themed narrative for the 2011 Namibia collection.
An overarching theme to Walker's work, one I had not noticed previously, is undoubtedly a passion for and play with cinema. From the first room (the Spitfire images harking back to A Matter of Life and Death (1946)), right through to the final images (Yellow Brick Road Fashion (2010)) Walker's joy in appropriating the visual language of classic films is apparent. In fact some of my rather unexpectedly favourite images of the whole show were the members of Monty Python dressed up in homage to Chaplin (sans-moustache); Terry Jones with an exploding pipe was pure comic gold. Similarly, a portrait of Christopher Lee wearing Vincent Price's fur hat, from 2010, illustrates Walker's humour and unabashed nerdishness towards the history of cinema.
Walker plays with his audience, bringing on a state of childish wonder; when he is not referencing classic films, his eyes (or rather his camera) are turned onto images of childhood. Titles like The Enormous Crocodile are not-so-subtle illusions to children's literature (in this case Roald Dahl). This is then mixed with imagery that is so ingrained in popular consciousness it needs no linguistic indicators: Alber Elbaz in Rabbit Ears (2010) is pure Louis Carroll. Walker's photographs have the amazing quality of looking like memories, frequently with slight blurring and with a soft focus and lighting, and walking around this show is like walking through childhood dreams not quite remembered correctly.
Unmistakably then, it is the surreal nature of the whole experience that will remain with you the longest. Images like Mrs Lisham in her Flying Saucer (2009) are unlike anything you will have seen before – simply how does this image exist?
This exhibition is well worth a visit: whether you have an interest in fashion, cinema, photography, craft or even just looking at very attractive women, you will find a lot here. And don't skip out on the film! I know too many people who do this, but here it really does enhance your understanding of the whole process of creating Walker's stunning images.