Nick Knight

Nick Knight

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In the same way that there were no music videos until MTV came along, there was no moving fashion until the internet came along, and I think that makes it a really exciting time.

Nick Knight

I think that this is an exceedingly exciting time for image making. Photography is a medium that I started working in about thirty years ago, but now I don’t consider what I do as photography because it’s really not the right medium for expressing the different range of things that I do. Currently, everything is very forward looking within image making. There was a reactionary period when everyone was trying to cling on to the last bits of photography and make it appear relevant, but it no longer does. 

If photography defines itself by a certain set of parameters, none of them are relevant anymore and none of them can be used to describe the kind of image making that I’m doing now. A lot of my current work is about 3D scanning and making objects from a 3D scan, and I’ve been working for almost a year now on scans of Naomi Campbell. The reason I chose Naomi is that I’ve worked with her before, I’ve known her since she first started twenty years ago, and she’s always remained one of those important models for me; I have a lot of respect for her modelling. Naomi is a controversial figure and part of the reason I wanted to do a formal sculptural piece with her is that I didn’t want to do it with someone too worthy, I wanted someone about who there would be some discussion and discourse and argument about how to perceive her. There seems to be, rather unfairly I think, a lot of bad feeling towards Naomi and it tends to be the same for a lot of black role models, they seem to get
assaulted by the press. I think that she’s a very interesting subject for an interactive sculpture, which is what I’m doing. I 3D scan Naomi and then from that I make small Barbie doll sized maquettes of her, then the data from those can be used to overlap, as you would do photographically with a double exposure. You can do that with actual physical data and that’s what I did with Naomi, I lined her up and wedid what looks like a triple exposure, similar to Warhol’s ‘Triple Elvis’. There was something within the same skill set that I would use to create a photograph but the end product wasn’t actually a photograph, it was a sculpture. Then I thought ‘Ok, this could be any size, so let’s make it three times life size, 18 feet, see how that looks’. I also like it when I see sculpture which has been graffitied on. The outcome of the Naomi project will be to have the sculpture in a darkened room lit only by things that people will write about the sculpture on SHOWstudio.com, like graffitiing the 3D model,
and what they write will be projected onto the sculpture so that you only see the sculpture through other people’s thoughts about it. There is a lot of bad feeling towards Naomi, and there’s also a lot of racism on the internet, so I like the idea that you see something quite incredible only through the warped visions of other people. There’s a certain arrogance in that past British colonial glory of having these sculptures throughout our cities of these heroes from the past who don’t have any relevance to most of the people who see them. They get written on and graffitied, and I like that because it’s like they’re being reclaimed a bit by the people and made more relevant to people today. There was a huge Richard Serra sculpture at Liverpool Street station that I photographed, and I liked the fact that it had been used mostly as a urinal. I like that kind of disrespect for things. What I like a lot less is arrogance, that thing of ‘Let’s put it on a pedestal in a gallery so you can all guess what the hell I was trying to say’. The visual arts are about communication. If I was talking about my work, I wouldn’t purposefully try and be obscure, I would do my best to be eloquent and communicate properly. When I’m creating a piece of work, it’s the same thing. I don’t like that removal from the audience of a piece of work; the artist who created it isn’t in touch with his audience anymore and the audience are trying to figure out what the fuck it’s about, and it’s still put onto a pedestal in that triumphant kind of way. I hate that kind of arrogance. What I enjoy doing is communicating with an audience and letting that audience communicate with me. With the advent of the internet over the last ten years or so, being able to be in touch with your audience has become a much more real part of creating a piece of work. I can take a picture on my mobile phone and have it published globally within five seconds, without anybody saying ‘Well, it’s OK but it’s not going to make any money’. Before, there were all these systems set up, be it contemporary art galleries, record companies, film companies, magazines, whatever, all set up in a way that work could only be justified if someone was making money out of it. It’s not necessarily about the merit of the work but whether you could make £1/2 million out of it and it therefore being worth showing. What the internet has done is taken all of that away, so if a piece of work is good then people will look at it, and if it’s not good then they won’t. I like that democratisation. As a general approach to work, that’s far more refreshing than that sort of triumphant way of presenting a photograph at the end of a whole series of processes and going ‘This is what I wanted to say’. Actually, it’s not, it’s a marker for a moment in time that has passed, one that helped me get from one train of thought to another train of thought and almost materialise what I was thinking about in my head. Often I can’t see something until I take a photograph; when I begin to photograph, then I begin to see that object. In life, I don’t see in the same way at all, so I think there’s a healthy way of trying to see the bigger picture of what I do as an ongoing quest into life and a way of looking at life.

I’m currently working on a film and a series of pictures with Gareth Pugh based on his latest collection for SHOWstudio.com and Dazed & Confused, and I’m experimenting with magnets in something called Ferro-fluid, which put simply is like iron filings in oil, and when you put a strong magnet underneath it forms into amazing shapes. It’s quite extraordinary. I wanted to use those as reflections for Gareth’s clothes moving, so instead of his clothes moving across a still and flat plain, once I put magnets under this black liquid I can use that as a black mirror and photograph the reflections of his clothes moving across these undulating bumps and spikes. That’s an example of something I’ve found and want to work with because I find it exciting. Whatever it is, if I find it exciting I try and find a project where I can investigate it and work with it. One follows what’s interesting. Whether it’s the dynamics of a particular process or magnetic fields being expressed through Ferro-fluid or a whole bunch of things, it’s about what I find exciting. When the internet came along, it allowed minute long clips of clothes moving when there hadn’t previously been a place for moving fashion. You obviously couldn’t put it into magazines, and you couldn’t really put it onto television because it’s far too expensive and far too bureaucratic, and you couldn’t put it on at the cinema because you’re looking at a three year period before you’d see it. It was only when the internet got itself going that I started to see a way of doing this.

In the same way that there were no music videos until MTV came along, there was no moving fashion until the internet came along, and I think that makes it a really exciting time. When a designer like John Galliano or Alexander McQueen designs a piece of clothing, it isn’t to be seen in a photograph, it’s to be worn. Good clothes move very beautifully because that’s how they’re designed. For the last 70 years or so, you could argue that that vision has been compromised by having to be expressed through still photography. There has of course been some fantastic fashion still photography and for a great part of my career that’s what I’ve been doing, but with the advent of the internet there was suddenly a distribution mechanism that would allow me to show clothes moving, so it became possible and very exciting to do. As soon as you have movement, you can have an event unfolding over a period of time and you can add a narrative or you can add sound - the coupling of sound and imaging is very strong - and previously that wasn’t around. That’s why I’ve been focussing on moving image, I find it really exciting.

SHOWstudio.com came into being because it was so obvious to me that it had to happen. Print was so frustrating, and all of a sudden there was a total revolution in communicating and there was something extremely exciting to be done with it. It was based on four basic principles - interactivity, fashion film or ‘moving fashion’, performance and process. The idea of interactivity and community as a two way medium is important, so it’s not just about the artist dictating their thoughts to an audience but about the audience becoming part of the creative process. If I have a conversation, I don’t intend to have a conversation by myself, I intend to talk to other people. Also, it’s about the idea of the global community. The frustrating thing about publishing in magazines or books is that you hand the work in, three months later you see it and there’s no contact with the audience whatsoever. For a performer or communicator as I see myself, being completely alienated and divorced from my audience wasn’t something I enjoyed. When you work in a studio, you tend to have a small audience, so you perform to those people. Then all of a sudden the internet came along and I can have comments coming in live from Japan or Mexico or wherever. As for the process, I think that showing how I work is fundamental to communicating better and I don’t see any reason to hide things away and not show how my lighting is done or the hours I spend with a pair of scissors or a photocopier, or where I get my inspiration from. All of that is part of the reality of creating a piece of work, and I believe it’s healthy to show that process. Often I’ll start out on one course but end up somewhere else. When I’m working, I’m more than happy for the process behind what I’m doing to be exposed. It’s the truth of what I do, you try one thing and if it doesn’t work you try harder or you try something else. I’m looking to remove the myth that ‘very talented people’ go into studios and continually come up with fantastic work almost effortlessly. The truth is that it’s all really fucking hard work and you need enormous amounts of enthusiasm, dedication and acceptance of failure, and you need to be able to be attuned to people around you and see things through other people’s visions. They’re the most exciting things for me, not just the piece of work at the end of the process. Some of the things that I witness on the road towards producing a piece of work are amazing. When I first worked with Naomi in 1986, we were shooting for a collection by Yohji Yamamoto based on the work of Christian Dior, referencing some of his shapes but simplifying it to pure colour fields, so it was pure red, pure green etc.. Naomi put on this amazing red coat, then she put a tape on that Prince had given her and proceeded to move up and down on a piece of white Perspex on the floor. It was just an amazing event to witness, this piece of contemporary fashion theatre. It was stunning, but it was only seen by the twenty or so people present in the studio. Ever since then, I’ve filmed everything I’ve done. I have a video camera on a tripod at all of my sessions, so I’ve got years worth of footage, and only once has someone said ‘No, you can’t put that on.’ 

I shot for a long time on 10x8, though it’s becoming less and less. Since 1989, I would scan my 10x8 Polaroids and transparencies onto different forms of computer and then manipulate and change the image at that point. Then I was capturing the image on Polaroid using a 10x8, now I tend to do it with digital. Archiving digital files is very unsafe though, and we’ve been railroaded into it by various companies. Artistically however, it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me, whether you work with an Olympus Pen half-frame camera, a 10x8 Polaroid or with a 3D digital scanner. Having said that, when I’m using a 10x8 camera I’ll stand next to the model with a cable release, therefore you’re not connected to the actual piece of equipment, whereas with a medium format camera you tend to have a lump of plastic and glass in the way of you and the person you’re photographing, so it is a slightly different way of working. As far as I’m concerned though, finding out what was used to capture an image is about as interesting as finding out what pen you used to write something. It’s OK to know, and if you were writing with a quill and ink then it would indicate a few things about you, but it’s not actually that interesting. What’s actually interesting is what you say in that piece. In the eighties, early nineties, I worked a lot with a chap called Brian Dowling at a company called BDI where we used to do all of our colour work. We found a way of separating the negative out into different layers and that became a whole new way of exploring what had been captured. Soon after that though, it became much more efficient and better to do that digitally, and there were also far more possibilities doing it digitally. More and more of my work is articulated through digital media now. It’s rumoured, and I believe it to be true, that Polaroid are ceasing to make the film for the 10x8 camera so, with a small degree of chagrin, I’m giving that up and working with other formats. I’m filming what I do now and using that as a primary source as well, so it’s just different ways of working. If I was a singer I might come to your house with an acoustic guitar because I had some songs I wanted you to hear, but if you signed me up to a record label I’d then go and record those songs in a proper studio with numerous digital options available to me, and if I was playing them at a concert then
I’d do them differently again. It’s really what you’re trying to say that’s important; the technical side of it is just about using the best way to express it, and I really don’t mind if that’s potato print or electro-microscopy. I’ve been working recently with a method where you print the image out but you don’t let the pigment sit on the paper, so it drips and immediately becomes like painting, which I quite like. There’s an obscuring of the image, the image becomes something else. There are ways of working that obscure or transform the image into something else, and by obscuring certain parts of the image you can allow people to interpret it in ways that free up the reality of what that image actually is and allow people to use their own imaginations a little bit more. There are techniques which are exciting, but again it is still just a technique. You’ll see a new technique come along and there will suddenly be a rash of it being used, but it’s only the images from people who actually had something to say that have any resonance, otherwise it’s only as interesting as the technique itself.

With the Pirelli calendar shoot that I did, they’d actually approached me a couple of times before and I’d turned them down because it wasn’t really something I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time with Peter Saville and I said to him that Pirelli had approached me again and I couldn’t make up my mind. I didn’t like the fact that their images were produced in a way that was somewhat stereotyping and degrading towards women, and Peter said ‘Well why don’t you do the opposite then? Instead of you producing the ideas, why don’t you ask the women to produce the ideas?’. From that came the idea of approaching a whole host of different women such as Elizabeth Wurtzel, Catherine Deneuve, Bjork, Tracy Emin, asking them what their fantasies would be, and I ended up with about fifteen different women talking to me at different times over the phone about what their sexual fantasies were. It therefore not only became not my view of sexuality and but also not a male view of sexuality. Talking to all of these different women, some older, some younger, some more sexually expressive and some less so, that was interesting and exciting and I felt that in order to then portray their sexual fantasies, I had to use something that would obscure those fantasies in the images, partly because some were unpublishable and partly so that there was some intrigue left. It came from the Pagan Poetry video that I did with Bjork. She came to me and asked if I’d direct the video for her, but the song is a love poem to her lover at the time, so I said to her ‘It’s a love song, it’s about your love for him, so why are you asking me?’. I gave her the camera instead and said ‘Next time you’re with him or fantasising about him or thinking about him, just film yourself’. There was some work produced around that, and there was an idea about her love being so deep that it went through any pain barrier and she was making herself into a bride by making herself into the wedding dress, so instead of sewing pearls into material she was sewing the pearls straight into her skin. So there were parts that sexually couldn’t be shown and parts which physically couldn’t be shown, so I used the technique of obscuring to hide that in order to get the video shown. In the end, we had to do a censored version, and censoring something that is already abstract is one of the weirdest things ever. We had these big black boxes appearing in the middle of these Hans Belmer type black and white swirls. I knew what was actually going on, so I censored the bits that, if you saw the real film, you’d have to censor because you can’t show an erect penis on MTV. I liked the way it looked though, and so did Bjork. It’s one of the most explicit videos ever to go out, and some people got it and some didn’t. Sometimes MTV showed it and sometimes they didn’t, they couldn’t really make up their minds about it. Of course, when the video went onto the internet it became much more compressed and it was much more obvious what had been filmed in the first place because a lot of the information had been crushed down. That idea of changing how the image is though, that’s an idea that I enjoy  exploring.

I think part of the problem with how sexuality is expressed is that it’s often very narrow, very coded. In my opinion, sexuality is like any other part of your life - it’s there to be discovered and there are a whole range of possibilities. I don’t believe that people are heterosexual or homosexual, people can just be sexual and that’s as far as it should be defined. We’re all sexual and I’m happy for that to be opened up as much as possible. I think sexual desire is a very positive thing and the more fun it is, the more inventive and exciting, the better. Many people’s primary concern in life is sex, it just manifests itself in different ways, be it the power of their position within a company or the images or films that they produce. You look at the work of people like Pedro Almodovar and Bruce Webber, a lot of the work is sexually motivated and I think that’s fantastic. There’s a weird kind of feeling that there’s something wrong with being sexually active or sexually creative, and I think that’s really odd.

I never really look at my work as a ‘Best Of’; it is all part of an ongoing process. One piece of work gets you from one place to another place, and for me the most important piece of work is always the one that I’m working on next. I’m happy to look back at my work, but I don’t do it unless I’m asked to. Sometimes I get asked to talk about Skinhead, and it was just a way of getting through a certain point in my life and recording that. Whilst it was important at the time, essentially it was just a way of getting from point A to point B. I have no desire to go back and think ‘I did this and it was a success so I’m going to do it again’. Why would you want to have a conversation you’ve already had again? You need to have a new conversation and it’s nice to meet new people and talk about things you haven’t talked about. There’s a desire to go places I haven’t been before rather than to rehash, technically or otherwise, some version of something that I’ve already done. When I’m working I see certain things and when I’m not working I don’t, so working is an exciting point for me and that pushes me forward to see things and experience things. The camera is very different to the eye. If I met someone for coffee, I really wouldn’t be able to study them in the same way that I would if I was photographing them. Often, I can’t see the image even as I’m photographing it until afterwards when I see it on a screen or a print. There’s a moment sometimes when you’re pushing yourself to work that you don’t feel like you’re in touch with the real world, you feel like you’re in touch with some different dimension. That’s an interesting moment and I’m sure people have expressed that throughout the history of art. I’m not a particularly spiritual person but you do touch upon areas of understanding imagery and the world around you when you are at your most focussed and most intense. That’s the moment when work becomes really interesting.

My wife and three children are all dyslexic. I’ve no idea if I’m dyslexic or not because I’m 50 years old and when I was at school you weren’t dyslexic, you were just thick. By the time my wife was at school, there was the option that maybe she was dyslexic. I’ve never had myself tested to find out whether I’m dyslexic or not because maybe I was just thick, but raising three children and dealing with all of the issues surrounding dyslexia, I found out that many people in this business are dyslexic. I started looking at how that manifests itself in the brain and how people perceive things and use different parts of the brain. There are a lot of photographers and designers that I’ve come across that clearly have signs of dyslexia, some acknowledged and some not, and I started doing research into that. We did a project on Synaesthesia which is a mixing of different senses, so you taste colour, you hear shapes, that kind of thing. All of those sorts of things are very interesting to me. I studied as a human biologist for a year, before I left university to become a photographer, but it did give me an immersion into psychology and physiology, and I’ve gone back time and time again in my work to exploring how we perceive imagery and how we create imagery. It’s an area that I find fascinating.

With the recent campaign I did for Agent Provocateur, I became involved because Kate Moss literally rang me up and said ‘Will you do the imagery for us?’. Kate’s very good at asking people to do things; that’s how Jake and Dinos Chapman became involved with it as well. When Kate asks you to do something, it’s hard to say no. Joe Corre came up with a script that I had to illustrate for him, which was an interesting process. The script was very literal. Joe is like a Dickensian figure, and with him being the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, part of them is in him - you’re dealing with The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, there is a lot of that in him. The whole Agent Provocateur thing of sexuality is kind of interesting, but on an image basis what I found as a way in, an interest for me, was to film Kate and the Chapman’s and the different people that had become involved with creating this narrative, then I took some stills from the video, made them into cardboard cut-outs and projected the video back onto them. So I took the shape of Kate and re-projected the video of her moving in and out of that shape, which allowed me to take the narrative that we’d established in the stills imagery and explode that and expand it in many different layers, in a similar way that I would expand or explode a negative. You look at the negative and you separate out all of its tones, the light and dark and all of its colours, and you end up with the floor covered in different variations of the same negative, then start to recombine different parts of those. That’s what I did with the film for this. I took the narrative, made it into still images, took the still images, re-expanded it using elements of the video I’d shot, then introduced new elements. At one point, the video travels through a cut-out of Kate that’s showing a video of her through a door we cut in her heart and you see a naked woman inside her playing a harp, as way of expressing her love for this moment that was about to happen. I think perhaps they wanted a more simple approach, but it was all a really nice way of exploring the use of film and stills together.

The next big thing I’ll be working on is an exhibition at Somerset House in London which will be opening at the beginning of next year. It’ll be a Show Studio exhibition running through January, February and March, so that’s what my next six months will be taken up with. Hopefully one of those will be the Naomi Campbell sculpture, but there are many other things as well. We’re going to try and do a live program as well. That’s the next big challenge, how to re-see those things in terms of an actual physical space.