Nick Knight: Fashion’s Visual Renegade
His reputation as a revolutionary force in fashion photography precedes him. Nick Knight’s approach to his craft extends far beyond the camera lens; his work has pushed boundaries and challenged convention for the past 35 years. The stories of brands such as Alexander McQueen, Yohji Yamamoto and Christian Dior have all been told through his images; images that exist outside the realms of the real world – but that of the fashion universe. Knight’s SHOWstudio has now become one of the most influential digital platforms for fashion film, photography and industry led online discussion. Nick Knight is not a photographer; he is a rule breaker, an uncompromising creative force and above all, an incredible image-maker.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 14th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Mr. Knight, why is it important for you to create images?
Because it’s important to speak, it’s important to communicate, it’s important to think about why we are here on this planet. Creating images is just about having a conversation, it’s just about speaking and it’s the language that I speak in. It’s a way of saying: look! I think this, I find this interesting, I find this annoying, this is exciting, this is awful, this makes me upset or this makes me happy; so it’s just a way of talking.
You established your career 35 years ago and the industry has changed phenomenally in that time – largely due to your approach to photography. Could you tell us about the world you started in and the place you find yourself in today?
It’s totally different. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I do photography anymore. It’s my firm belief that photography was a very distinct medium, defined by a very distinct set of parameters which links everyone from Richard Avedon to Eugène Atget, from Mapplethorpe to Muybridge. All those people were photographers and the medium they practiced was very clearly defined by a set of very clear parameters; so you could describe it to anybody and they would understand what you were doing. What I do now, and in fact what most people do now, is outside of those parameters. The way I work and the platforms upon which I work and the images which I produce aren’t within those parameters at all. I can take a picture with my iPhone and very quickly I can change the background, or I can make it into an animation.
I can put sound to it and broadcast it across the globe at the press of a button. That’s got nothing to do with photography, its outside of those parameters and I think that’s really happened since the mid-nineties. I’ve been calling it image-making for the last 20 years because I think that’s the closest thing I can come to what I do – it’s creating images. An image can be a moving image or it can be a still image; but it’s an image and I think that feels closest to describing what I do. Now, if I was to take a picture from where I’m standing of my garden, which would look very beautiful in the sunlight, I could press a button and half a million people would see that instantly. That’s very different from going out with a camera and taking a picture, developing the picture in the darkroom, printing it and getting it to a publication. Then, the publication would decide whether they would publish it or not, they would then change it, they’d find a use for it and that takes months; photography was never an instant global communication. None of the magazines that we worked for ever had that reach. The biggest difference is that I can now publish a picture and it stands on its own merit, so if people like it, they like it. I’m not having that picture published to make money for somebody else. Before, if I’d taken a picture and if a magazine decided to publish it, it was because it would make the magazine better and therefore would sell more copies; or if you were a gallery and you decided to put it on the wall, it’s because you thought you could sell it and make some money from it. All the creative arts were based on making a third party money and that’s how they were allowed to exist. That goes right back in time to when the Medici’s started the patronage of the arts, which was, “Yes, you can paint my Sistine Chapel, but you’re going to have to paint what I want and it’s going to make me a bigger person in society” – so it’s at somebody else’s profit. That’s a fundamental change that I don’t think people have grasped yet; now the work is made purely for the love of the work and that’s what SHOWstudio was based on; it wasn’t based on making money, it was based on how to create work that we love, that people will want to see. There’s still no advertising on SHOWStudio – it’s been a non-commercial platform for nearly 20 years and has just existed to allow work to be created free from that commercial restraint. I didn’t want to make all of my work just to sell somebody else’s product; I’m quite happy to do that, but it’s not everything I wanted to do.
Your images carry a distinctive Nick Knight signature – in some way, is all your work part of the same story?
Yes, I am who I am, I can’t be somebody else. So, I can only see the things I see and I only like the things I like. People talk a lot about style within photographs but it’s innate, it’s something you have no real control over. It’s like whether you like chocolate or you don’t like chocolate, whether you like one thing or another – it’s natural. It’s the same thing when I’m creating an image, I find I’m looking for things that I like, I’m looking for things that please me and I will naturally go towards those. So, you tend to work by responding to the same sorts of impulses and the same sorts of desires because that’s who you are; so it’s not a conscious decision to have a particular style or signature, it’s because you are the same person. You’re always going to like the same type of stuff and be attracted by the same sorts of things; tastes change and we change as people when we grow older and our lives change around us, so you find new things out. But, at the core, you are the same person throughout your life. So, naturally, your work tends to come from the same mind, same voice and same heart.
What does your work aim to question?
I much prefer asking questions than I do providing answers. I think it’s more important to ask questions in a way. I think it’s important to make people think; just giving them an answer isn’t necessarily the best way to make them think. So, I think a piece of work that’s thought provoking, that makes people question why they do certain things or why they think a certain way or why they like certain things – I think it’s really important. I’ve always believed that you should show the process of how you create work, it shouldn’t be this mystery to hide away from, I think it’s important to show that you fail. Photographers and image-makers are often very frightened of failure because none of us really know how to do this, it’s very hard to know how to get better at making images or taking photographs. None of us are quite sure how to repeat what we perceive as success from the past. Overtime, you’re presented with a new shoot to do, it’s always terrifying, it’s always tricky to work out what you’re going to do. That’s why you should never really plan it too much, because you’re never going to know what it’s like to stand in front of that person until you’re there. You need to have images which are fresh and new and about the moment they were taken, not about some kind of plan or sketch you came up with befo- rehand. It’s important to realise that way of working that often you fail; the first image you take is usually not very good. It’s important to fail as failure and accidents show you things that you couldn’t have previously imagined and that’s often how I work. By going through stages of accidents, failure and trying things out, it’s like play and the spirit of playing which is often lost in adult life; it’s a spontaneous emotional reaction to events around you, rather than sort of coded plans. Which is why when I’m doing films I don’t story board – much to the annoyance of my clients.
Experimentation defines your career as an image maker, from the live broadcast of sleeping models (Sleep) in 2001 to The Sound of Clothes in 2005; where do you find your inspiration?
Well, inspiration comes from your life. Everything is inspiring if you choose to see it that way, it really just depends on your own mood. I mean, absolutely everything is inspiring, if you want to see it as inspiring, it is inspiring. Everybody has beauty in them, you just have to see it and want to see it. It’s more a case of when you are inspired, what happens inside of you to make you inspired, but it isn’t external events, it’s more internal events that inspire you. I can walk down the street one day feeling totally in love with the world and be totally inspired by every centimetre of my journey; but sometimes you walk down the street and you don’t feel anything and you’re not really there. Everything from the light on a cobweb, to the color of a leaf or the wind in a boy’s hair – I mean everything – the sound a car makes, all of it can seem exciting and inspiring if you’re in the right frame of mind.
LIVE seems to play a key role in a lot of your work, from the 24-hour fashion shoot for YSL or 23-course Heston Blumenthal Banquet – what is it about real time that appeals you and your craft?
It’s the spontaneity, it’s the fact that people can see you fail, allowing people to see the reality of you creating is important. There is a thrill to know you’ve got a million people watching you doing what you’re doing. I mean, it’s nerve-wracking, but we’re all performers in a certain sense, especially people who work in the fashion industry – I do a physical performance when I’m working and taking photographs and I’m aware of that and I don’t think that should be dismissed. The physicality of our jobs is important and for people to see what really goes on, I’m very happy to be completely open about what I do and have cameras in every part of it, because every part of it is important. The whole ‘live’ process becomes a way of being open and being more truthful with the imagery. I don’t like the situation where you are presenting your work, retouched, on the cover of a magazine, 3 months after they were taken and nobody has any interaction with them. It’s like when you go around a museum and you see a photograph on the wall and you think, “I wonder what they were thinking” and you have no connection with it, you’re just left there guessing. I don’t think that’s a good way of understanding what a picture is about. I don’t like the sort of arrogant position that a lot of artists present in, of unexplained sculpture, painting or photograph; just speak clearly to me.
In 2009, SHOWstudio ‘live streamed,’ McQueen’s S/S ’10 show long before it became the norm. What prompted you to take this step?
The motivation was to do something I thought everyone should see. I used to go to the fashion shows a lot, especially to Alexander McQueen or John Galliano’s, as they were friends and clients of mine and the shows were amazing. But you think to yourself, there are 300 people in this room and about 3 million that I know would like to see this – so why are we not showing it to everyone that wants to see it? Why is it just this room of slightly bored looking fashion journalists and buyers? The first fashion show I ever went to was Yohji Yamamoto in Paris in about ’86 and remember thinking the front row looked really bored and I was thinking, ” This is amazing!” It was so beautiful, it was like a piece of art. Knowing there were about 300 art students outside who wanted to so badly to see this, but couldn’t get in, I just thought why can’t we open the doors? Then, the Internet came along which was a good way of opening the doors. It was a very exciting feeling to allow people to see this and we started with Plato’s Atlantis and that, overnight, changed the fashion industry. Now, 8 years later, nearly 80% of the shows are broadcast live, so it’s all totally changed how fashion is shown. Designers are now looking at different ways of showing their collections and there’s a very different approach to when it started with Plato’s Atlantis.
SHOWstudio was founded in 2000 and has revolutionized the way in which we view fashion and its creators – how do you envision its continuation to go against the grain and remain on the cutting edge?
The grain’s really changing; what we’ve seen, not entirely through SHOWstudio, is a revolution in fashion. The way it’s been articulated for the past 100 years is no longer t for purpose. You can’t keep on showing so many collections, you can’t keep asking designers to produce so much stuff, you can’t keep it all behind closed doors and you can’t just show through the magazines. I think it needs to change, the system doesn’t feel contemporary, I don’t think it’s a good way of showing clothes. I love fashion magazines but we can’t fool ourselves – the best way to show clothes, which was designed to be seen in movement, is best shown as a 2D image? It can’t possibly be true, all designers create garments to be seen in movement – therefore the best way to show them must be as fashion film, which is what SHOWstudio has been about. It’s a bit like going from the silent movies to the movies we know now – it’s a big step but it makes sense. Magazines and the 2D image still have a purpose, but fashion lm is very important and is still a young medium. If you look back at the last 20 years in the history of fashion photography, it was pretty different to the fashion photography we know now. But it took 50-60 years to establish itself, it wasn’t until you get to the Bert Sterns, Irving Penns and the great photographers from the 1960’s that you start to see something that really looks like contemporary fashion photography. And I think you’re seeing the same kind of invention in fashion film; I think you’re beginning to see this medium becoming stronger and stronger and more popular. It’s finding its parameters and way of talking. At the moment, we don’t really know how long a fashion film is – is it a 12 or a 20-minute lm? Or is it just an animated GIF?
The idea behind a fashion film is just to see clothes in movement – so maybe a GIF does that fine. I just did a film with Gareth Pugh for his last collection and it was 17 minutes long and it was shown at the IMAX cinema. We’re all still questioning what a fashion film is. I think we’ve started a revolution, but the dust hasn’t settled yet. At SHOWstudio, one of the most exciting things we’re looking at right now is AI, which is a totally different rationale to creating images and it’s something that is going to be in every part of our lives soon – those kinds of things are very exciting. It’s a huge new way of looking at the world and a total revolution in ways of communicating. There is a fundamental change going on; we have a very different landscape in front of us, one that is very interactive, immediate and global and will bring in all our different senses by combining science and the arts. We have to creatively rise to this challenge and be in charge of developing it or else it will be military and the porn industry.
In Camera and In Your Face interviews at SHOWstudio were pioneering in its ambitions to give designers a voice through in depth live interviews – your content has now come to include interviews with influencers and musicians. What is so important to you about the spoken word?
Well, it’s important for everybody. On a human level, it’s one of the strongest ways we communicate. People didn’t really understand the fashion industry and I think it’s very important that people do understand how it works and what it is. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what happens and a real lack of understanding about fashion – especially in the British press. It’s important to allow people to speak and to talk about things. But these are also stories, they’re people’s lives that will just disappear if we don’t record them. I’ve spent the last 20 years recording some of the most exciting people who are working in the creative arts. is is a huge document of our time, which goes from the beginning of the digital age and these are the pioneers of a new world in lots of different ways. It’s really important to have their testimonies, discussions and thoughts and I didn’t quite grasp how important social document was when I started SHOWstudio. Now, we have thousands of hours of people speaking about all the things they love and believe in and the things that frustrate them – you have a very honest document of our time. These are 20 years at the start of one of the most exciting periods of human existence.
Panel Discussions have become a trademark of SHOWstudio, giving a voice to creatives, industry professionals and academics. Is debate key to the exploration and understanding of fashion?
It occurred to me about 10 years ago, looking at the fashion industry and how they show fashion collections, that there was very little debate around it. It’s obvious in a way why that is – people don’t want to upset their advertisers. In many ways, it became a moribund industry; any creative industry that hasn’t got an active critical forum actually gets very complacent and out of touch. If you can’t criticise it in the way that opera, theatre or any of the art forms are criticized, then I think it becomes very boring. I think it’s better for the designers and everyone else who is concerned if there is an active discussion around their shows. I don’t want people to be critical just for the sake of being negative – that’s not what SHOWstudio is about – but people do have very passionate conversations about the shows they see. I personally believe that, when you see the fashion shows, what you’re really looking at is someone’s mind. We can either dismiss fashion as commerce and business, or we can look at what they [designers] are trying to say, and I work close enough to designers like Gareth Pugh, Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford to see how much love and effort they put into creating their collections. It’s a long process of creativity and thought poured out into 15 minutes, and that’s it; so not discussing it is wrong. I was looking at sport and how it is articulated and shown on television. If you watch any football match, you have a group of 5 pundits beforehand talking about the teams, the players and the general state of football; there is a commentary during the match and after they will discuss the match, and that’s why the public is so engrossed in sport. Fashion never does that, it only ever speaks to itself, and it’s never really got out of that – it doesn’t speak to the public. If you read a fashion review, you usually have to understand a lot about fashion to read them; it’s a bad medium for actually talking to the public. Originally, fashion journalism came about from editors sending people the fashion shows to put them in the magazines to tell people what went on, and it’s a very different situation now because people are seeing the shows. Now, it doesn’t have to be explained in that way, the public have a pretty good grip by looking at the shows for themselves. So, unless you’re going to say something more interesting than a bunch of sycophantic stuff to please the advertiser, you really haven’t got much of a place. The commentaries or panel discussions became a very interesting way of allowing people to talk about the designers. Because we don’t carry advertisers at SHOWstudio, we are free to talk about anyone in whatever terms we see fit. Often, we’ve been taken aside by different fashion houses and told that we can’t that about their collections – but yes we can, and we will because it’s what we think. We have no fixed agenda, but we do have a huge amount of different panelists from all different walks of fashion – from art historians to journalists, from models to designers, it’s a very broad voice. It was important for me to show that fashion wasn’t just this elite group of people who direct it all, but that actually, it’s a large group of people. It took quite a lot of convincing, there were a lot of people frightened by speaking their mind live on camera. Magazine advertisers have such a hold on the editorial world and dictate images in their entirety – if you don’t have a full look, the designer isn’t happy. But that’s not how you get great creative fashion photography. Great photography came about through the golden age of fashion magazines in the sixties and seventies and at a certain point in the mid-nineties business started imposing such a strong grip on them [fashion magazines] that they started bowing down to the advertisers’ desires.
A Beautiful Darkness, the first instalment of the Widow Series, was a new venture for yourself and SHOWstudio – it was an incredible immersive exhibition experience for anyone who managed to visit. Could you talk us through the process of curating and your intentions for this project?
We’ve done a few of these kinds of large scale events and we enjoy producing these kinds of projects. The project was about looking at Halloween and I came across the old St. Martins School in High Holborn, which at one point was full of creativity and now of course, stands empty, and I thought it wouldn’t it be lovely if all the ghosts of this place came back for one night? The idea was to fill each room with a different artist that would give it a different voice, knowing that it would be gone the next day, which kind of felt in keeping with the idea of Halloween. It was a lot of fun working with so many different artists, creating interactive pieces so that when you saw them you were actually part of something and not just spectating. We showed fashion illustration, which has also been shown a lot under SHOWstudio, in a blacked-out room, so you had to go around the room with candles to look at everything, which means you scrutinize it even more. It was about representing work in a way that isn’t familiar to people, which was exciting. A lot of it was based around fashion films that had been commissioned for that event, which is a way of articulating fashion which takes it out of its usual boundaries. Curating a group show like that was exciting and the idea of curation is something a lot of people are excited about at the moment. I think that, by bringing together all these elements, it was about being able to create one message or one overall experience so that people were left feeling something.
In 2015, you launched SHOWstudio’s first fashion lm awards in an effort to encourage, sustain and mentor rising talents – are you excited by what you have been presented with over the past two years?
Absolutely, I get sent a submission or two every day and it is a new medium that everyone seems to be really excited about, but it’s a hard medium to crack. A lot of people approach fashion film, I think, in the wrong way and my approach as a fashion filmmaker and photographer is non-narrative. Fashion film should evolve from the language of fashion photography – so you use models, not actors, and develop from the photograph to the moving image. I’m seeing it [fashion lm] come from all different parts of the globe – over 57 different countries have submitted films for the awards and it was exciting to see the different approaches as it tended to be a little more national than you would think. America, for example, tended not to be very good at creating fashion film as they were so narrative driven. The history of American cinema is so bound to narrative; it was so ingrained in how they looked at cinema that, in a way, they couldn’t divorce themselves from it, and narrative is totally superfluous to the needs of fashion film – the narrative is already in the clothes. Alternatively, Russia was very good at creating non-narrative fashion film at a very high, and beautiful level. Asia, too, was very good a producing fashion film, so it seemed to be the countries that had a different history of cinema that seemed to help them grasp the idea of fashion film much better and consequently a Russian film maker won it. Fashion film is a term that I coined when I started SHOWstudio, but people had made fashion films in the past – people like Guy Bourdain or Erwin Blumenfeld all toyed at some point with the moving image and there wasn’t really anywhere to put it at that point. We have a collection of Blumenfeld fashion films on SHOWstudio which he made to encourage his clients to go into the new medium of television back in the 1950’s, which obviously no-one really picked up on. Fashion film never really had a platform before; while cinema has a 3-year or so cycle, fashion has a 3-month cycle – so television never really got it, they were too busy chasing the ratings to look at fashion in a serious way, it would only trivialise or scandalize it. It wasn’t until the age of the Internet, when I started SHOWstudio, that there was a platform for fashion film. I’ve seen the growth of it – when I started there was no fashion film, and now you can see that nearly every major cultural capital has their own fashion film festival and now every client approaches me to make a film, whereas before it was to take a photograph.
There has been a great power shift, if you look at people like Kylie Jenner and even sports people they have massive social media followings and those are worth a lot of money, so now advertisers will want to work with a model because of their Instagram fans – and so it changes the dynamic. Now, the models have got more access to their audience than the magazines have. Magazines are printing 20-100,000 issues and the models come striding in with 10M followers – who’s got the power now?
SHOWstudio is an archive of incredible significance – your collection of Alexander McQueen recordings, images and interviews is invaluable. Was it your intention for SHOWstudio to be such a critical resource?
Yes, I had lots of different intentions with SHOWstudio which I’m still making happen but one of the original ideas was to have it as a place where people could be educated. We’re the first port of call for a lot of students because we carry a lot of material that doesn’t exist anywhere else. A lot of websites carry snippets of information and we have hour long interviews with hundreds of people in the fashion industry. If you’re a student wanting to learn about John Galliano or Hussein Chalayan, you need to find information somewhere and SHOWstudio has become an incredible resource. I’ve always believed in education, I think we advance as a society through being educated, so I’m very happy to keep on pushing that.
It is fair to say you boast an incredible list of collaborators from Bjork, Alexander McQueen to Kanye West – is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would love to join creative forces with?
There are always people, but life’s too short unfortunately. There are so many people I want to work with, in a lot of different ways. I’ve worked with a lot of incredible people in the sports industry this year from David Beckham to LeBron James and the sports industry is very exciting.
You tend to gravitate towards the people you want to work with, the Kanyes and Bjorks are people I respect and admire and likewise they respected me and so, you sort of come together. In a way I don’t want to force anything to happen – things happen for a reason. Sometimes you have to say this month I’m only going to be able to photograph or create film with 2 or 3 people – but just do it really well.
The images created for designers Yohji Yamamoto and, more recently, for designers like Craig Green have all broken new ground for the ‘fashion image’ – is it important to have an affinity with the clothing itself? Or do you approach each project from the position of an impartial artist?
No, I think it’s very important to have an enthusiasm and understanding and love for it. I wouldn’t work with anybody’s clothes I didn’t like.
You often mention the restrictions of photography, despite being one of its most influential rule breakers – how do you feel about a new generation of photographers returning to the boundaries of analog photography?
Everything is important and worth looking at, every way of communicating, it’s all interesting. Photography is a fascinating medium. I used to work exclusively on a 10-8 camera, which I haven’t used for almost 15 years, but I keep looking at it in the studio thinking I should get that back out and try it again. The technical aspect of what I do and other photographers and image makers do is spoken about too much and it isn’t that interesting. If you compare it to painting, how often do you hear someone say, ‘What brush did you use to create that?’ Photography is so bound up with its own technicality; you’re just making a mark and it doesn’t really matter if you do it with paint or the latest digital camera. The reason I’m championing new mediums is because it frees you up and allows you the freedom to not worry if it’s technically photography or not.
A lot of your fashion imagery finds its way into international exhibition spaces, raising the eternal question about fashion as art. Your imagery is undoubtedly artistic in its approach and feel – is the gallery greater than the magazine?
No, it’s just a different place. During my career I’ve sort of shunned the gallery as a place to show work. I haven’t been seeking that space, partly because I like the idea of seeing my work in a public vernacular.
this is happening on
Vikki Kavanagh is THE OUTNET’s Secret Weapon
Vikki Kavanagh is the Global Buying and Merchandising Director at THE OUTNET, the sister e-commerce website to Net-a-porter and Mr. Porter. And the reason she has held that venerable position at the c...
Alexandre Mattiussi: Making Evergreen Menswear for...
There are some fashion insiders who call Alexandre Mattiussi “a one in a generation” fashion designer. And I would have to agree with that assessment. He is a bit of a fashion unicorn in that, not onl...