Tim Walker puts the realism into surrealism by capturing his wild imagination – which wanders from a stream flowing through a country house drawing room to a group of neon-coloured cats – in magical photographs of the seemingly impossible but which are in fact carefully constructed stage scenes. As one of the world’s leading fashion photographers, Walker defies the industry’s prolific use of Photoshop retouching by employing props and set designers to make flying saucers glide along fox hunts and beds float in trees. “If you manipulate an image into something that wasn’t there it doesn’t ring true with me,” says the British-born former assistant to Richard Avedon. “It loses the essence of photography which is an emotional thing.”

As surprising as Walker’s photographs is the location of the latest exhibition of his work. Taking place at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, northeast England, the show sees cutting edge fashion photography arrive deep in the Teesdale countryside. “It looks like an Indian palace,” says Walker of the spectacular 1892 building that is home to Goyas, an El Greco and more from the collection of founders John and Joséphine Bowes. “It’s so strange and out of place and I love anything that’s out of place.”

Titled Dreamscapes, the exhibition presents Walker’s work for the first time not as that of a fashion photographer but as an artist. With references to English landscape painting, his photographs are “charged by an understanding of both painting and photography from the traditions of this country and abroad,” says curator Greville Worthington. To help facilitate this new understanding of Walker’s work, Worthington chose to exhibit the 26 photographs in the show in light boxes.

“I was always interested in painting from quite a young age,” admits Walker. “When I discovered surrealism it was like everything that I’d ever imagined was there unfolding in front of me.”

Most of the landscapes that feature in Walker’s photographs are scenes of the rolling fields of Northumberland, where he has a country home. Specifically, Eglingham Hall, near Alnwick, and its grounds are the scene of many of his imaginative scenes. “The hall is like a studio for me,” explains Walker. “It’s one of the key ingredients in my work.”

As a fashion photographer the house might be called his muse but Worthington refers to it with the same understanding of art that informs Walker’s photographs: “Eglingham Hall is to Walker as Dartmoor is to Richard Long, or Cookham was to Stanely Spencer.”

More info:

Dreamscapes at The Bowes Museum
Until September 1, 2013
Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NP
+44 1833 690606

At the opening of Dreamscapes, Tim Walker talked with Luxuryculture about surrealism, the essence of photography and the importance of Eglingham Hall to his work.

Your work is often said to reference English landscape painting but to what extent does Surrealist painting inform your photographs?
When I discovered surrealism it was like everything that I’d ever imagined was there unfolding in front of me. It was very recognisable. The concept of being able to paint something is a lot easier than constructing it physically so I think that’s much wilder and much more imaginative than what one can ever achieve in photography. And it still maintains an emotion.

In an industry where the Photoshopping of images is considered good practice, why is reality so important to you? Why go to the extreme effort of constructing these sets?
Because by me being there and seeing it, it becomes a genuine intention. The point of a photograph is that it doesn’t lie. I think that I am doing a bit of lying but at the same time trying to tell the truth. If you manipulate an image into something that wasn’t there it doesn’t ring true with me – it loses the essence of photography which is an emotional thing.

Many of your photographs bring the outside in and the inside out – where does this interest come from?
It’s the child in me. You know, the treehouses that you fantasised about as a kid but that you could never do. I guess I’ve never given up. When we construct them, they’re often a kind of practical trick.

Why is Eglingham Hall in Northumberland the location for so much of your work, including many of the photographs in the show at the Bowes?
The hall is like a studio for me. It’s one of the key ingredients in my work. I almost have the feeling that you can’t take a good picture if you’re not there. It’s strange that it has become so vital. I’ve looked at other places but you don’t get the landscapes as well as the house. The proportions of Eglingham Hall are good for photography because they’re not so massive that they dwarf people but there’s also a sense of the impossible about it. The rooms are big enough to get incredible objects in them which we can juxtapose against the domestic.

How does the owner of Eglingham Hall feel about you pouring ice in her drawing room or hanging her beds from trees in the garden?
A stylist that I work with introduced me to April Potts (owner of Eglingham Hall) about fifteen years ago. We became great fiends and she is just as excited at the possibility of doing these projects as I am.

‘Babes in the Wood’ stands out in the show because it is darker – is your work evolving?
It took a long time to construct that shot and we didn’t intend it to be dark. It just happened instinctively. Your intention for the picture doesn’t always end up in the result. In fact, a lot of my photographs are becomi ng darker. I think it’s just maturity. I love the darker concepts because they can only exist with something that is brightly coloured.

The Bowes museum is not far from Eglingham Hall and your own country home. What attracts you to the region? And what was your relationship with the Bowes before showing here?
I love it up here. It’s mainly the landscapes that are so beautiful that interest me – even in the dark and the rain. The light is changing all the time - there’s so much variety to take pictures in. I didn’t know anything about the Bowes until Greville Worthington asked if I would do the show. I was blown away when I saw it. When you approach it from over the hill it looks an Indian palace. It’s so strange and out of place and I love anything that’s out of place.

Greville Worthington, Curator of Dreamscapes

“The reversing of interior and exterior space is an ongoing device used by Walker to disrupt normal navigation of space, and make us look again at the world and how it is constructed. Inside/Outside, Eglingham Hall (2002) is a key work with this interplay between outside and in.”

“Self-Portrait with Eighty Cakes (2008) shares the same cheerfulness and wit with Ravilious (who was known to be always whistling, and never down at heart). It comes close to nostalgia for a better time, when a birthday was celebrated by a day in bed with an abundances of eighty cakes.”

“In his work The Dress/Lamp Tree (2002) we find a tree from which dresses hang, lit as lampshades. A surrealist device for sure, but given an almost unexpected naturalness by Walker, as if such trees were not the stuff of dream, but rather that such things might actually be discovered from time to time.”

“Close to a nightmare is the fear upon the face of the model in Lindsey Wixon And The Giant Doll As ‘Babes in the Wood’ (2011) where she is confronted with the huge doll in the dark wood. The combination of scene, model, weather and prop make for an impact from the deep recesses of dreams, a sense of loss, abandonment and fear struck into the scene at the moment of capture.”