Radiant; Visual Capture

By Mary Wheelehan

Imagine for a moment that you have become Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole. Emerging on the other side is a world of intensity: of colour, of texture, of sound. There are giant pink cheetahs, long-legged elephants, a red ball gown, a pair of golden slippers. These items are magical, but they are also real—and so is the rabbit hole. Its location? The V&A, now offering entry into Tim Walker’s fantastical worlds in a new photography exhibition, Wonderful Things. Wonderland is not just for Alice anymore.

Wonderful Things debuted at the V&A on September 21st as a collection of work, both past and current, by fashion photographer Tim Walker. Walker’s photography career spans twenty-five years, and although he shoots for popular fashion magazines such as Vogue, W, and Love, his particular style is surreal, unique, and unmistakable. Catapulting to fame in the 1990s, Walker prefers a physical approach to visual storytelling, creating an other-worldly aesthetic using an abundance of props and complex sets rather than Photoshop. As a result, the clothes in his photographs are only one of many compelling elements within the frame.  

Moving through the beginning of Wonderful Things resembles moving through Walker’s career. The exhibition opens in a brightly lit room, featuring over 100 photographs and films from Walker’s past projects. These photographs include portraits of notable names, including Sir David Attenborough, Margaret Atwood, Cate Blanchett, and Björk. Also included in these portraits are images of Walker’s muses, performers Tilda Swinton and Lindsay Kemp, models Kristen McMenamy and Kate Moss, and the artist Grayson Perry.

Tilda Swinton

The true heart of the exhibition, however, is just beyond this display, where the pink cheetahs, long-legged elephants, red ball gown, and golden slippers are found. Here, the V&A displays ten new Walker collections inspired by the V&A’s own expansive collection of artifacts—their wonderful things.

Each collection, including sketches, props, sets, and the final photographs, is contained in its own sensory display room, and each room is decidedly different. One mirrors the interior of a burnt-out cathedral; another recognizes the efforts of the V&A’s textile conservators who care for the museum’s fashion and textile artifacts—including the red ball gown. The artifacts featured in Walker’s shoots are as varied as the rooms used to display their photographs. To create these images, Walker photographed stained glass windows, medieval manuscripts, jeweled snuffboxes, and the possessions of the poet Edith Sitwell, among many other items he discovered in the vast and varied collection of the V&A.

To discover these wonderful things, Walker immersed himself in the museum, touring its roofs, its cramped underground tunnels, and its sweeping inventory. Some of the items featured in Walker’s photographs had been in storage for many years, invisible to the public, before Walker’s vibrant imagination brought them into view again. In a book written to accompany the exhibit, also titled Wonderful Things, Walker writes of the attraction he felt toward these objects and the inspiration he drew from them: “Each shoot is a total love letter to an object from the V&A, sometimes several objects. My relationship to objects is like falling in love with someone. It relates to how we interact as people, how you become best friends with someone. It’s a search for a new friend…” These V&A objects are displayed next to Walker’s exhibition photographs, allowing visitors the opportunity to fall in love with them as well.

Dress from ‘The Horn of Plenty’ Autumn/Winter collection Alexander McQueen

The journey through Walker’s new collections in Wonderful Things is an exploration of our own magical world; Walker’s imaginative interpretation of the V&A’s artifacts is a reminder that reality, through the right lens, is wonderful.

 Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things exhibition is on at the V&A until March 8th, 2020.

V&A and Tim Walker: Wonderful Things

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