William Waterworth’s Classically Beautiful Photos Capture the Joy of Travel

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Ein Tir by William Waterworth
Zissou, 2023Photography by William Waterworth

Shot in the Isle of Wight, the Alps and England’s south coast, rising photographer William Waterworth’s new solo exhibition pays homage to his favourite image-makers

William Waterworth is seated in the V&A’s historic garden courtyard. It’s a familiar spot for the 27-year-old photographer, who frequently works in the museum’s National Art Library that overlooks the space. It is to these grand, chandeliered reading rooms, which house the UK’s most comprehensive collection of art books, that he goes in search of calm, clarity and fresh ideas. “I go through all the books up there, they’re magic. You can order nine to ten at once and my best friend and I always go there to search for stories,” he says. The fruit of these searches now form part of his latest project, Ein Tir, an exhibition of photography, film, writing and craft spanning the full breadth of Waterworth’s practice.

At its centre are three narratives: the life and work of 19th-century British portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain and Jacque Henri Lartigue’s photographs of his brother Zissou’s early aviation attempts. Each provides the basis for a story that Waterworth developed and shot over three separate journeys, all made in March this year. First to the Isle of Wight to visit Cameron’s former home, then to the Alps for Mann’s tale set in a snowy sanatorium, before chasing Zissou’s primitive bi-plane along England’s south coast. These pilgrimages reflect the centrality of travel and landscape in Waterworth’s process (Ein Tir translates as ‘Our Land’ in Welsh). He typically shuns the safety of a studio in favour of something wilder, where the unpredictability of the natural environment demands agile thought and spontaneity. Freed from the time constraints of his editorial work, this project brought a welcomed shift in tempo, giving Waterworth and his band of travellers time to immerse themselves in the characters of each story.

“They felt very spiritual,” he says of each trip. “I did so many [fashion shoots] last year and it was slightly killing me. In the mountains you had five days, so you could do it slower and wait for the right moment.” Characters from each narrative are fully inhabited through hand-crafted costumes, adding another layer to Waterworth’s dramatised interpretations. The result is beautifully constructed photographs that appear like stills from a film, each powerful enough to summon a moment just passed or an action yet to unfold. Their strong emphasis on the natural elements adds to this sense of drama, with the Alpine photographs, in particular, evoking a timelessness reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich, the godfather of Romantic landscape painting. 

Shown alongside these works is a book by Waterworth, made specifically for the show. Featuring a carefully edited selection of 100 prints from the last four years, it echoes the same tactile processes as are evident in the photographer’s journals, several pages of which have been framed for the exhibition. This new book, however, offers “a far more organised account” of his work to date, and was inspired by Untouched, the recently discovered early work of French photographer Guy Bourdin. Not only was Bourdin a similar age when he produced these black-and-white photographs between 1949-55, but they also precipitated a change in style that Waterworth has been quietly considering himself. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who’s only interested in these old-world stories. Bourdin took those photographs in his mid-twenties and went on to make completely different stuff, so I guess we’ll see.”

Elsewhere, the exhibition pays tribute to the collaborators with whom Waterworth executes his ambitious visions. Alongside the brilliant costume designs by Edie Ashley are film works by Joel Kerr that give added context to the images on the wall. Asked why their contributions form part of his exhibition, Waterworth’s reply is simple: “They have to be. They’re a part of why I started in the first place and their inspirations merge with your own, so you’re really following the same tracks. That was a really nice thing about the whole experience of shooting these stories, it’s all with friends.” As he ponders the uncertainties in his still-fledgling career, the importance of these close collaborators is one thing he is sure of. “Tim Walker always spoke about the importance of trusting your family. The guy who’s making the lectern [for the book] is also a really good friend. I haven’t seen anything, but I know it’s going to be amazing.”

Ein Tir by William Waterworth is on show at Pipeline in London until 10 June 2023.