Great photographers don’t just take pictures, they tell stories. Whether, like Cartier Bresson who tells the story of ordinary people in the street, or Man Ray whose stories came from his surreal imagination, they all have something to say and, like great painters, a unique, identifiable way of saying it. You can always recognize a Cartier Bresson and you can always identify a Man Ray.
The stories Tim Walker tells are complex and the sources of their inspiration are diverse and complicated. Sometimes he takes fashion shots for the world’s top designers; sometimes he takes portraits of celebrities; sometimes his work recreates or takes inspiration from stories of the past. In all cases the photographs are multifarious, very colourful and have an air of mystery about them, always giving the impression that there is more to them than meets the eye.
The fifty-two-year-old British photographer started his career as an eighteen-year-old working for Vogue magazine in London, sorting through the archive of Cecil Beaton whose work inspired the young Walker to take up the camera. Along with another English photographer of the time, Angus McBean, Beaton’s portraits and fashion shoots created ephemeral spaces, imaginary worlds around his subjects where time stood still. Walker’s photographs are often based on complex sets with elaborate props and dressing and, as with Beaton and McBean, the work is nothing if not very camp and theatrical.
The current exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal comes hotfoot from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and that establishment plays an important part in this show. Walker was allowed access all areas at the V&A and its myriad storage spaces and nooks and crannies to search for objects that would inspire him to create work for Wonderful Things. The resulting photos form the hub, the raison d’être, of the exhibition. So, there is work based on stained gothic glass windows, the pen and ink drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, jewelled snuff boxes and, most spectacularly, the 65m long photo of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Each room has its own theme and there are lots of them, ranging in style from stately home to shiny black-floored seventies disco, lacking only a mirror ball, and a room full of packing cases onto which the pictures are attached. Many of the spaces at the start of the show are jam-packed with photographs, often small in small frames and hung close together like a grand salon. Because the spaces are compact and the photos small it is necessary to get up close and personal and, if the exhibition is busy, this may prove frustrating. It’s almost a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees. I would have preferred maybe fewer, but certainly much bigger, photographs so that one could have admired them individually rather than being overpowered by the ensemble. The rich, heady and very histrionic mixture make it a little hard to digest and I sometimes found myself hurrying to the next room in search of calmer, less turbulent waters.
That said, there were two rooms I liked very much and lingered a while. There is a nicely presented dark gallery of nudes and I particularly liked the row of very small, about 5 cms square, photos of naked ladies which put me in mind of the equally small square Rembrandt etchings – although I did feel a little self-conscious, having to peer quite so closely at them.
But I think my favourite room was the one dedicated to the Bayeux Tapestry. Discovered by the photographer during one of his many forays into the bowels of the V&A, the photo of this huge piece of cloth inspired him to recreate his own version of it, à la Walker. The result is a modern, rather decadent and much smaller take on the masterpiece of mediaeval needlework, perhaps owing as much to Boccaccio, which often concentrates on the chain male [sic].
This is an important and enlightening exhibition of an important creative photographer of our time but I think I would have enjoyed it more had the emphasis been more on the work rather than its presentation. Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things goes a long way to confirm the old adage that one can perhaps have too much of a good thing, wonderful or not. Nevertheless, as a spectacular exercise in high camp, it is well worth seeing. Michael Hasted 24th September 2022
Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things continues at Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 29th January 2023