The image-maker Nick Knight cuts a remarkably sober figure. Conservative, even. He wears sharply tailored bespoke Savile Row suits, with an affinity for the fuss-free cuts of Carlo Brandelli at Kilgour. The only sign of radicalism is his eschewing of a tie and unfastening of a top shirt button on an otherwise resolutely buttoned-up exterior. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. While Knight may not bear the outward imprimaturs of eccentricity – like the slashed lipstick, ubiquitous hats and ball gowns for daytime sported by the late, great and right honourable Isabella Blow – he is nevertheless one of the most original and ground-breaking fashion auteurs of the past half-century. Incidentally, Blow's name is affixed to an accolade he's receiving on Monday 23 November, the Isabella Blow Award for fashion creator, at the 2015 British Fashion Awards.
But Knight could have received it just about any year since he began his career in 1982, publishing a book chronicling the skinhead scene while still a student at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. Raw and visceral, Skinhead is still in print. He then photographed a seminal series of portraits of London's leading music and fashion personalities for i-Dmagazine, and the first of many catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto, alongside graphic designer Peter Saville and art director Marc Ascoli, whose visuals became landmark. All this, before Knight turned 30. Knight's career has consistently redefined the way we see fashion, because he's helped recreate the fashion image. “The metaphysics of Nick's lens are always revelatory. You end up in a universe you might have glimpsed a fragment of in a dream,” states Lady Amanda Harlech, a frequent collaborator. “Nick is extraordinary.” What a summary.
Photography for Knight, however, wasn't the original choice. Initially, he enrolled to study human biology, the first step to becoming a doctor. He has confessed to occasionally wondering if studying medicine would have been a better choice. “Photography was a way of having some sort of social purpose, I guess,” he said, with hindsight, in a live online interview in 2006. “That's an elevated way of saying, 'It was a way of chatting up girls!' That's the truth. It started very mundanely, as a bit of social interaction. But I took it up as a career because I was doing something I hated [human biology], something I thought I had to do, to get to medicine. Photography was not on my path – it was a pleasure... Photography was the only thing I was any good at, the only thing in my education that I shone at.” He still does. But Knight has nevertheless chafed at photographic convention. “When I first started, there were an awful lot of presumptions about photography,” he reasons. “I began changing photography, painting on negatives, collages, a very manipulative approach.” Indeed: in the Nineties, Knight pioneered digital image-making, retouching and printing, not only investigating technological boundaries, but blurring the line between real and fantasy. He impaled the designer Lee Alexander McQueen on a digital bed of nails, morphed men into monsters, women into blow-up dolls, and sometimes men and women simply into each other.
Knight enjoys transgressing boundaries – past, present, and future. Example: he recently completed a series of monolithic, impressionist views of roses, dribbly six-foot-something images that resemble photographic “paintings”. Knight would prefer to nix those quotations. “They are paintings,” insists Knight. “It's the ink that gets shot out of the printer. But I've treated the paper so it can't be absorbed. So you're no longer dealing with the photographic process, you're dealing with paint on paper. It's to do with the orientation, with gravity, with moisture, with the chemicals we put in the dye… I think it's interesting when all the boundaries are spreading and dissolving very quickly. This allows people to apply the laws of one medium to a different medium.”
I meet Knight in the Belgravia offices of SHOWstudio.com, the pioneering, multiple award-winning website he founded in 2000. Like Knight, it's slick and polished on the surface, but delve inside and there's a web of ideas that are intriguing, enigmatic, infuriatingly inventive and crossing over many a medium (a project exploring the sound of clothes, anyone?) Full disclosure: I worked with Knight for the first five years of my career, as fashion director of said website. There wasn't really a remit, bar exploring what fashion could mean on the internet – an inspiring, occasionally intimidating and undeniably wide brief. “Mainly it was a lot of excitement that propelled me into doing SHOWstudio and a little bit of frustration,” says Knight today.
The frustration came from the pedestrian display of fashion, either as still magazine imagery or, if filmed, as tabloid fodder; the excitement from new technologies, and a new platform, the chance to play. Knight is still playing – mention the label “photographer” and it rankles him. “It's a very restrictive description of what one does,” says he. “I feel if one has a restrictive vision of what one is, that stops you from expanding and being free to paint a wall one day, or create or sculpture. I don't feel you should be restricted by one particular medium. I'll happily work from film, to sculpture, to photography.”
Sounds strange, but Knight does. That “fashion creator” stuff on Knight's forthcoming award was intended to widen the remit to stylists, photographers and art directors; but it's a good summary of Knight's varied working methods. He's a creative as likely to be found using an iPhone or a 3-D printer to create his imagery as a Hasselblad. “Nobody talks to writers about what pen they use or what paper they write on,” scoffs Knight, when talk of cameras comes up. “That's as interesting as whether I use a Hasselblad or not… Photography attracts a lot of people who like objects, cameras. I've never liked cameras, I've never found them exciting, they're lumps of plastic and metal that more or less get in my way, but do a job for me. I'm really not at all interested in what camera anybody uses. When I see an image, if I think it's really great, I never think about what camera has been used.”
Interestingly, when Knight does talk of cameras, he mentions words such as “restricted” and “bound”. He's still pulling at the reins, just as he did when his career began.
Contrast that restriction with Knight's short films, and you see where his allegiances lie. There's a free-wheeling energy to his motion image work – he's directed music videos for Bjork, Lady Gaga and Kanye West, but it's in his editorially focused “fashion films” (his terminology) that you see his aesthetic at its best. Knight is a passionate advocate of the medium.
“The main reason, if you want, to start SHOWstudio was the realisation that clothes are made to be seen in movement,” he states, emphatically. “We've accepted that the way to represent clothes is by static image. I went over that again and again in my mind, and I thought 'Well, this can't be true to the designer's vision', because the designer always imagines them to be in movement. So there was a desire to really get closer to the designer's original vision and that's something that's given rise to fashion film, and it's very much a feeling that it's a better way of showing fashion.”
Knight most recently collaborated with Tom Ford to showcase his spring/summer 2016 collection via film, on a bevvy of models with a cameo by Lady Gaga, in a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Seventies music show Soul Train.
Knight's conviction about fashion film is such that he's putting his money where his mouth is, partnering with QIC Global Real Estate to offer a £10,000 prize to young fashion film-makers via SHOWstudio.com. “There is still a very conservative approach to the image,” states Knight. “I think it needs visually changing. It needs to be more audacious. What we try to do at SHOWstudio is to make fashion films that challenge how you see things.”
So says a fashion creator who has, arguably, challenged more than any image-maker of his generation. Knight's suits may be conservative, but the man, and his images, are indeed extraordinary.