For Nick Knight, it’s all about failure.
“That’s exactly what creation is,” Knight explains. “It’s not being frightened to fail. Every time I take a picture I have to go through a series of failures to get there, usually under extraordinarily excruciating circumstances. It’s very hard to have Kate Moss in front of you – someone considered one of the world’s most beautiful women – and the first Polaroids that come out aren’t very good. All of a sudden she doesn’t look very pretty and it’s because you didn’t photograph her very well. There’s a humbling experience to that which I think is healthy, and you have to work your way through it.”
The disarmingly honest and articulate Knight has always championed the process over the end product. He sees his body of work as “an ongoing communication, a response to events” – from the documentary photographic book Skinhead he published in 1982 (the year he graduated from Bournemouth Art College), via his nine-year-strong ad work for Dior, to his internet baby, the art and fashion website SHOWstudio (www.showstudio.com).
“I’ve never seen myself as a classic photographer,” says the London-based (but frequently flying) Knight. “I don’t particularly care for defining myself in specific terms. I don’t mean that arrogantly, I just don’t find it helpful. I don’t view my work in that triumphant way of producing trophies to hang on walls. That’s why I’ve always shied away from exhibitions and books.” Working “right at the end of what could loosely be described as photography,” Knight felt that the newer possibilities of the internet offered the perfect outlet for his interests. Having worked for publications including i-D, Vogue, Dazed & Confused, The Face and Visionaire and clients as varied as YSL, Björk, Alexander McQueen, Massive Attack and Calvin Klein, Knight sees SHOWstudio as a multifaceted platform for exploring his obsession with the process of creating imagery. He’s an unashamed technophile who regards his online experiments as a natural progression of the generations of image-manipulation software (Sitex, Paintbox, Photoshop) that he grew up alongside as a photographer first plying his trade in the 1980s.
One of his key relationships of that decade was with Yohji Yamamoto, for whose catalogues he was recruited to shoot in the mid-’80s on the back of his work for i-D. In collaboration with art director Marc Acoli and designer Peter Saville (whose contribution was at Knight’s behest; nobody had previously conceived of a role for a graphic designer in such projects), he helped rethink catalogue convention in ways so distinctive that the team went on to create the next 10 for the label.
Another key relationship has been with John Galliano, chief designer at Christian Dior, whose ad campaigns he has photographed for almost a decade. He’s forthright about where he gets the motivation. “Working with Galliano is where the continual stimulation comes from. I respond to what he does and he responds to what I do. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with him for nine years now, and I’m happy to have it because he’s an interesting person. I’m completely aware that there’s an enormous commercial angle to this as well,” he adds, “but there’s still some passion there, some drive and love, because he’s an interesting person to be working with.” Interest in the designer as personality also sparked the beginning of his relationship with Alexander McQueen: “I remember seeing his clothes on the rail and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a photograph of these clothes. I want to know about the person making them and why he’s doing it.’”
As well as those labels, he’s worked with Jil Sander, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood. And Comme des Garçons’ visionary designer Rei Kawakubo, who didn’t share Knight’s fascination with exposing the construction of fashion artistry to public view. “She’s a very difficult person to get any process out of at all. She’s very closed in that respect.” Such differences of approach, though, are clearly part of the creative dynamic of fashion, and engagement with the medium’s difficulties and contradictions is key to Knight’s enduring interest in it. “I particularly like fashion because it’s a hard thing to come to terms with. People don’t like the idea that it’s largely motivated by surface, which sadly we are. Going all the way back to Skinhead, it was all about surface.”
That was then. For Knight now, it’s very often about the internet. “All of a sudden,” he explains, recalling the development of his interest in the technology, “a whole load of doors opened up at the same time, with great views through them and lots of promises. It avalanched. It seemed to become coherent with the advent of the internet; it all seemed to be going in the same direction, which was very exciting.”
He says his decision to focus his work online was based on three factors: the immediacy of the format, its live and interactive aspect and its spirit of independence. “It felt like the medium I’d been waiting for all the time I’d been doing photography. I’ve always worked predominantly in fashion, and fashion is created to move. Showing that movement isn’t possible in print. Other mediums like film and TV were too bureaucratic – it needed to be something that’s accessible, fast, moving: the internet’s very good at that.”
The ability to include a global audience in the process – “making them not just a passive recipient of your thoughts, but an active part” – was another factor, as was his genuine desire to showcase the work of his peers without having to pander to outside commercial pressures. Knight is a genuine enthusiast. His list of former assistants reads like a who’s who of the world’s top fashion photographers, and he sees Showstudio as an extension of those relationships. “I wouldn’t say it’s a family,” he says. “That suggests all sorts of connotations I wouldn’t want to imply. But this isn’t a business that engenders a support system. It’s not a very caring industry to be in. There are few measures to show that you’re doing well; there are no reviews or anything like that, no award ceremonies as such. To some degree, people are looking for friends, someone to care about them, and I care enormously about people and want them to do well. Even if it’s just giving some advice.” In a business that by its very nature encourages a certain selfishness, SHOWstudio is rarity, a showcase for the talents of others – all without relying on advertising revenue and the relationships that entails. Furthermore, its online nature allows it to go into as much depth as it likes on any subject, “unlike magazines that are limited by space, or broadcasts that are limited by time.”
Perhaps surprisingly for someone in his position, Knight is uncomfortable on the other side of the camera, but next month he’s finally going to face his public via a live online Q&A session – a format SHOWstudio has made its own via a series of interviews with, among others, Tracey Emin, Kate Moss and David Bailey. “I’d always hoped my work would speak for itself,” he says. “My physicality and my personality aren’t things I particularly want to promote, but obviously that position is slightly untenable. So many people ask questions about me on the site, it seemed easier to do an interview, if only to give [SHOWstudio’s editor-in-chief] Penny Martin a break.”
Above all, Knight seems determined to defy the cynic in all of us – not least those involved in the fashion industry. He seems happy to paint himself as the unassuming internet crusader – and has some sinners in his sights. “I find it annoying that the internet is driven mainly by the porn industry. I don’t want to have a fantastic communications tool driven entirely by commerce and porn, although that is often the way.”
You want evangelism? “The internet hasn’t yet been defined because we don’t know its boundaries. What I’m trying to do is push the boundaries of the medium.” To that end, future plans for the site include using 3D scanning technology and an attempt to create “sound images for the blind”. They could always turn out to be humiliating failures. But then for Nick Knight, that’s the whole point.
Nick Knight’s proteges, in his own words
THE UNOFFICIAL NICK KNIGHT MENTOR SCHEME IS PROOF THAT NICE GUYS DON’T ALWAYS FINISH LAST
“It’s very rewarding for me to see magazines filled up with people I’ve worked with in some capacity ever since they started, whether it was me championing their work when I was a picture editor at i-D, or them assisting me. I feel quite in contact with a whole raft of photographers…”
“Sean Ellis, for instance, was just nominated for an Oscar for a short film he did, Cashback.”
“Craig McDean’s work occupies most advertising hoardings and the first two-thirds of every global fashion publication there is at the moment.”
“Sølve Sundsbø’s out there, pushing the technical front line as always.” “Juergen Teller came to see me when he first started. He did one day’s assisting for me and I said, ‘For Christ’s sake, Juergen, go and take your own pictures.’”
“Alice Hawkins is now getting stories in Harper’s Bazaar and Pop. I found her in a competition I was judging. She’d done a project of sports symbols shaved into pole dancers’ pubic hair. She came second in the end, not without me ranting and raving on her behalf.”