When people ask me about my work as a prop stylist and set designer in the fashion industry, I like to describe both the processes and the outcomes of this type of work. I usually find that the best way to conjure up an image of both the work it takes to make fashion photographs and the satisfying final product of these efforts is to describe my experience sworking with set designer and art director Simon Costin on shoots with photographer Tim Walker.
Both Costin and Walker are well known to fans of fashion magazines and sometimes all it takes is the mere mention of their names for curious acquaintances to smile and imagine the fantastical and memorable images this team have produced. To those who have no trouble recalling Walker’s work – giant props, elaborate interior settings, painted animals, pastoral landscapes, and models dressed as the protagonists of fairy stories must come to mind. I say with a smile, “We actually make everything for real. There is virtually no virtual intervention. The giant props exist. The fantasies and illusions are the product of clever ideas, creative collaboration and not a little bit of hard work.”
I have been working as design, production and administrative assistant to Simon Costin since early 2009, and among the dozens of large scale photographic projects to which I have provided assistance, three were with Tim Walker. Two of the shoots were advertising campaigns, for Albion cosmetics, and Credit Suisse, and the third was the editorial ‘Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops’ for W Magazine published in October 2010.
On all three of these projects, as Simon Costin’s assistant I was responsible for the usual tasks of research, sourcing, hands on fabrication of props, and arrangement of scenic elements in preparation for and during the shoot. However, the very nature of a Tim Walker shoot, promises that even these routine elements of production work are imbued with the essence of the extraordinary.
For the Albion shoot in 2009, a giant beanstalk, a miniature greenhouse, a room overflowing with cherry blossoms and a field of giant cherries were needed. On location at a decaying stately home in East Grinstead, UK (formerly owned by members of Led Zeppelin) we filled the eighteenth century music room with branches and pink blossoms. When Tim saw the work in progress, he wondered whether there could be twice as many blossoms on each branch. Indeed there could be, as we accomplished via the alchemical combination of hot glue and infinite patience. My hours spent standing on a ladder happily pasting extra flowers onto trees are poignantly emblematic of what it is like to be a production assistant on a Walker shoot.
When Tim and his team came to shoot the room, the extra blossoms were seamlessly part of the reality of the picture, albeit an altered reality – helped along by lots of patience and equally as much hot glue.
During the Albion shoot, I also squeezed into a miniature greenhouse to dress it with terra cotta pots, distressed a miniature deck chair by staining it with coffee, and decided on the most likely arrangement of giant cherries in a field, just in time for model Coco Rocha to enter the camera’s frame.
A year later, for the W Magazine couture shoot with model Karlie Kloss, the set design and story concept were pure fantasy. At first I heard that we were to paint an entire cottage and its grounds yellow – and that’s exactly what we did. But, we had to do it so that the effect was reversible (as the cottage in Rye is actually someone’s home).
The small house was encased in a false shell and an extra layer of thatch was even added to the roof.This was painted yellow – along with artificial grass and foliage, bricks, garden tools, apples, a tennis racket and branches with blossoms – yes branches with extra blossoms pasted on.
Co-starring with Karlie Kloss on the shoot was a prop that was already my favourite before its recent fame as the poster image for the current Tim Walker Storyteller exhibition at Somerset House – a giant (or life-sized) Humpty Dumpty.
Actually there were two versions of ‘Mr. Humpty’ as he became known on set. A fully posable “whole” humpty, and the broken shell of him after his infamous fall. Both Humptys were fabricated by a sculptor and prop-maker, but it was yours truly to whom the task of painting his varied expressions came. Being handed the brushes and paint for this important element of the set design meant that Tim and I spoke rather at length about the effect, colours and shape of the facial features. It took quite a few tries to get the mouth just right, and to achieve the overall “powdery,” effect that Tim was after – but it was well worth it to see the final product in W Magazine’s October issue, and currently on posters in the subway and on the cover of the Tim Walker Storyteller catalogue.
In summer 2011, I worked on an even larger scale and more ambitious shoot with Walker, this time as part of an advertising campaign profiling clients of Credit Suisse. Our portrait subject was American fashion designer Jen Kao and the creative concept was a fantasy underwater banquet ‘floating’ in a forest. I assisted with the design research and mood boards, which were based on Tim’s sketches and references. Then, Simon Costin and I set about to source giant sea creatures, shells and nautical paraphernalia to ‘dress’ the forest. At the center of the picture were to be six large banqueting tables, set for an opulent meal, which were hoisted into the trees. The hoisting was done by a professional rigging company (people actually sat in the chairs suspended high in the air!) but the table setting, platter arranging and securing of all the props via heavy-duty Velcro was a job for me and a small but diligent team of production assistants. The effect of the tables swaying slightly in the breeze, resplendent with platters of real and plastic seafood, lighted lamps and silver platters was truly magical. So magical in fact, that it nearly blighted out my memory of how difficult it was to remove the heavy-duty Velcro from the hired silver platters.
What you unfortunately can’t see in these or other “behind-the-scenes,” images are my most treasured memories of working on these projects. As you hopefully can tell, Tim Walker shoots are hard work that require versatility, creative hand skills, quickness, agility, and a collaborative spirit. But they also provide magical moments that don’t end up appearing on the pages of glossy fashion magazines; moments in between the work, when the various teams have meals together, help each other out, and generally get to know each other.
On the W shoot, Karlie Kloss baked us a giant batch of peanut butter cookies. The representatives from Albion who came to the shoot from Japan gave all of us goodie bags full of skincare and cosmetic products as a thank you. On the Credit Suisse job, Simon Costin and I recreated the sounds and creative conversations behind our work for a BBC radio broadcast. Like the extraordinary props, unlikely locations and glamourous clothes, these elements are part of the magic.
My most memorable moment of all, and one that made me appreciate being part of the total experience was when during the W shoot, I frantically arrived to one of our locations in a wheatfield carrying a 5-gallon tub of ‘goo’ to spill underneath Humpty Dumpty’s broken shell. As ever, ready to do what was needed, I arrived somewhat breathless, only to find Tim Walker himself laying in the fields on his back looking up at the summer sky and chewing on a staff of wheat. “Jenna,” he said, before I could see where the voice was coming from, “come lie back and enjoy the English countryside for a moment.” Indeed, it would have been a shame not to do so, and it was then I realised that all the magic doesn’t only come from the props, the mood boards and the efforts of a skilled and dedicated team –before that it comes from Tim’s daydreams. I had never felt so enchanted as during that moment when I was invited to be part of that daydream – albeit while holding a giant vat of goo.