Interview with Nick Knight

Nick Night Courtesy of Nick Knight

Nick Night
Courtesy of Nick Knight

Photographer Nick Knight who has been expressing fashion revolution in the most beautiful way no longer wishes to call himself a photographer because he is an ‘image maker’ who expanded the territory of photography technic and concept as well as a ‘Fashion Democrat’ who is writing the new values of what beauty is. Nick Knight’s expectation future doesn’t only lie in the interest of photography but will continue from his desire to change the world’s aesthetic standard. Prior to the opening of his exhibition in Korea, he has spoken to <Vogue Korea> about the origin of his revolutionary intuition and reasoning penetrated from his 40 years of experience.

A sign on the door read, ‘The Show Studio’ at the address given for the interview. The door led to a space with an open ceiling covered with a glass closing on the top allowing beautiful sun light straight in. There was a long table and a few chairs surrounded by freshly painted white walls. It was once an old church building, I was told, and from yesterday the new office for Show Studio. A man appeared in a crisp grey suit with a white handkerchief neatly folded and placed in his jacket pocket. This is a man who desires to be called an ‘image maker’ or otherwise and is a ‘fashion democrat’ who believes in images and its evolution. To Nick Knight, this is a very special moment that marks his 40 years of life as a photographer during which he has created a collection of legendary images what he is today renowned for. 

The exhibition <Nick Knight: Image> will take place at Daelim Museum in Seoul from 6th of October and take you through everything you need to know about Nick Knight and his works from the Rock’n’Roll spirited ‘Skinhead’ photos to his concept work space ‘Show Studio (’ with which he has created works for the music, art and fashion scenes. Nick mentions that he is ‘very pleased to plan his first exhibition in Korea, a country with a very progressive image”. He is looking forward to his first visit to the country while equally excited about opening a retrospective exhibition for the first time. He doesn’t like to stay in the past and it’s all about the future. All this he explains going into great details with such depth as if leading a private view mentioning what composes the exhibition and sharing all along the different stories behind each project, his philosophy and causes behind the process. Nick’s conversational skills were as fascinating as his photography and concepts as well as the fashion scene he has been part for over 40 years.

Nick Knight doesn’t just remain in his place of taking the most beautiful photos in the world but his experiments continue to desire the unknown platform of the near future. ‘The language of an ‘image’ and the global platform in the internet world and a new world where digital technology would have advanced further is what he looks up to. At the end of the interview he reveals his ultimate plan to open Show Studio beyond London and in LA as well as Seoul. This exhibition therefore may as well be the prologue of Nick Knight’s version of innovation and this interview a message encouraging to ‘Go out, and create more’, a positive message addressing the uncertainty of the future.

Tatjana Patitz for Jil Sander, 1992 Courtesy of Nick Knight

Tatjana Patitz for Jil Sander, 1992
Courtesy of Nick Knight

Vogue Korea: What would we be expecting in the exhibition from the 40 years of work you have created? We’re curious to understand the reason and objective behind curating this exhibition. 
Nick Knight: I don’t particularly enjoy seeing backwards, but I like to see new things. I really dislike retrospective exhibition, and so this is my first retrospective exhibition. I was concerned about how I should connect the body of work to the public, as I had to look at 40 years of work and I am trying to make sense of it. I needed to tell a story, communicate and connect with the public. So I decided to start with the first photographic project which I did in 1979 in college called ‘Skinhead’.

VK: How are the works archived? Are you looking at the negatives or prints for example?
NK: At the time, most of my photos were negatives, but now you can do a lot more digitally. I started from the negatives and then I matched the original print which I did. At the time, I was telling a story, and now I want to tell a story through this exhibition. My ‘Skinhead’ work is rough and raw, and I wanted to start my work with these prints.

VK: Have you reprinted the images or are they digitally done?
NK: Yes, I had to scan the original print and the original negatives and matched with digital technology. And I spent a long time to get the right ‘feel’. My exhibition goes from ‘Skinhead’ into portraits. I did 100 portraits in 1985 and then in 2009, I did 200 portraits for the Somerset House exhibition. For the exhibition, I created a live studio space which everyone could see inside of the studio and the public could see from Lady Gaga to Naomi Campbell.

VK: I wasn’t able to see the live studio sessions, but I remember the sensation which the show created!
NK: Through the exhibition, I wanted to show ‘Performance art’. During this summer, I showed a clip of exhibit on the internet and more than 1.7 million people viewed it. Within 20 days, 200 people took portraits, and normally the live session would only allow around 6 people which included makeup artist, stylist, model, assistant and the art director. This was the reason that I started ‘Show Studio’. I wanted to open a studio and ‘show’ them to the public.

VK: Why did you want to show your studio?
NK: It’s my passion. It’s the reason which makes me get out of bed. It is what I really like and it excites me, although at the time magazine editor’s tendency often made me upset. I wanted to show the variety of beauty through Show Studio, as it was a time when Alexander McQueen’s clothing were not even in the magazines, as Alexander McQueen didn’t advertise and magazines preferred mostly white models than any black or Asian models for the show. Sometimes an intrusive beauty was created through the collisions.

VK: How was the live studio platform in summerset house? How did the audience perceive it?
NK: I have lots of good memories with Lady Gaga. Many fans were waiting for 3 hours to see Lady Gaga. When she put on her lipstick through the double glazed mirrors, the fans were going mad. It was interesting to see the ‘connection’ between the public’s aspiration towards the celebrity and the place where people could see through inside but can’t see the outside.

VK: After ‘Skinhead’ and the 200 portraits, what’s going to be in the next space at the exhibition? 
NK: It’s about the works created by me and some of the designers who are close to me. Through the ‘Designer Monographs’ section, it tells the story about the designer’s beautiful world of works which I expressed through my heart and soul.

VK: Any specific ones that are most meaningful to you?
NK: I have worked with Yohji Yamamoto for the first time in 1986, and he was supporting all the fashion parts which I loved. At the time, it was all about ‘Power Dressing’ and the clothing which emphasize the women’s body silhouette. But Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo created clothing which expressed the ‘woman’s heart’. It was something new that a woman can show their beauty by not through showing woman’s deep breast line and body silhouette. A perfectly made coat with red coloured bustle sticking out at the back was enough to create a beauty by itself. And then the show moves on to Martin Sitbon, Jill Sander, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

VK: I feel like I’m walking through an exhibition that’s not even open yet. What’s in the next space?
NK: There are variety of themes. Such as thinking about the interaction between the photos and paintings. The trend of media is to ‘cross over’ each other. With my iPhone, I can take pictures, videos and I could get a still shot image through the videos. As I could paint by moving the image, each media‘s start and the end became obscure. To show the world of ‘image making’, I chose the actual exhibition’s English title as ‘image’ as well.

VK: How do you think the making of image and the work with image has evolved?
NK: I surely think it has a deep connection with the appearance of digital images. It began in the 80’s and from the mid 90’s, the image making scope has enlarged which means working on image traditionally has already started to fully expand. As working on the paintings, through splitting the depth of an image, and changing the brightness, it could be seen three- dimensional. And by uploading photos on internet, it was possible to move above the boundary of ‘traditional image’. So, the work I’m doing is not ‘photography’, it’s ‘image making’.

VK: The way you compare working on digital image and painting which are 2 medium so different from each other is quite interesting.
NK: Recently in a very high humidity room, I was working on the beautiful photo I took on acetate film and I was working by moving steam on it. Because I was putting ‘paint’ on paper it becomes a ‘painting’.

VK: So, do you think what you are doing is the work of an ‘image maker’?
NK: Yes. When I began as a photographer, working through a small hole on a camera, filtering the light onto a film and to expand the come out and to record is what I and most of the photographers did. But what I’m doing now is different! Everything has changed. The photos are used in a ‘gallery’ or ‘magazine’ platforms only. But when the internet appeared, the photos were in this world, and most of us look at the image through their mobile phones. And this is only just a huge beginning.

VK: Do you actually work with your mobile phone?
NK: Of course. One time, when I showed the photos which I took with my mobile phone on the Show Studio website, someone commented madly to me about it. So, I was really surprised that it was the guests who complained, and not the client. I wanted to know the reasons.

VK: Do you think it was a similar situation in the past when photography first appeared as a type of media? 
NK: In the 1850s when the photography first appeared, artists were complaining, worrying, and got scared about it. But nowadays the change is much faster, as the whole world is connected to each other. It has become a world where me living in London can communicate with someone in Seoul.

VK: How did you embrace the change?
NK: We are instigating this by fashion film and live shows. To live record Lee McQueen’s 2010 F/W collection called ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, two rails were installed on both sides of the catwalk, and a huge camera was following the model on the runway and then changed the direction to the front row, and recorded Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington. When Lady Gaga announced on her twitter that she would reveal her single ‘Bad Romance’ at the show, 600 thousand people tried to connect at the time and the site crashed. Nowadays 70% of the shows are on live, but at the time it was something new. Lady Gaga’s fans who are now interested in fashion created an unbelievable ‘desire’. The show is where the connection between the designer and the audience take place and when this moment happens the desire of clothing is created. 

VK: When did you first interact with fashion?
NK: Because my father was a diplomat, our family lived in Paris. In the 60s my mother was a ‘modern woman’ who liked to shop at Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. My mother used to change her clothing 4th times a day and enjoyed the time of doing this in the morning, mid-morning, dinner, afternoon tea and banquet. But my father is the one who always preferred to wear the suit. The fashion he chose reflects a lot on him. I was mostly influenced by my mother who had many interests in fashion. Before my mother died, she chose to wear Alexander McQueen for her death bed, and I even photographed her ‘Vogue’ once.

VK: Is the sleek suit you are wearing today something like a uniform to you? 
NK: Of course, I only wear denim when I work. I have think about what to wear. ‘Today’s John Galliano’s shooting day, he must be wearing this, and the model should be wearing...’. So what I thought is ‘Just to get out of my home, do what I should be doing, don’t think too much, and do what everyone knows about the look and it’s done!’. One of my client is Saville Row’s ‘Kilgour’ and that helps a lot.

VK: Let’s go back to the exhibition. You wanted to open the public’s eye, and today’s fashion rapidly changes. What do you think about this?
NK: What do you think?

VK: As I knew the world through the fashion magazines and as a magazine columnist, I am used to the ‘long form’ articles. It took me a year and a half to understand the hashtag language for example. It wasn’t that the language of the ‘tool’ was a problem, it was the time to adapt with the changes.
NK: It’s true. Show Studio is a site which aims for the ‘long form’ contents. We publish essays, stories, a thoughtful interview and more. We used to be the ‘important source’ among the variety of Fashion colleges including Central Saint Martins. People usually read our essays and watch the 1 hour long ‘Panel Talk’. As short and quality information were needed, what we needed was something new which we could get into it, there should be new ways to find other vision.

VK: What inspired you to become a photographer?
NK: When I was working on ‘Skinhead’, I was using small cameras. Photos were taken by a fixed focus flash mounted camera. Apart from the need to print them, it was similar as taking a photo with mobile phones. Every image tells ‘some kind of a story’. It’s one of the many ways to communicate. Over the decades taking photos with quality techniques existed and became available for everyone. No one will say snapshot is bad. What I think about the photo is, it’s like a ‘Peculiar Beast’.

VK: What an interesting comparison!
NK: The reasons I exhibit and run the Show Studio is to expand the photography territory. Lots of photos are misunderstood. I don’t know how they are made and it’s same for the image making and fashion. Some people say by ‘retouching’ an image, it changes the reality. But photo itself produces my visions which lead to change the reality. If the basics of being an image creator is to ‘show what you cannot see’, it means this way is whatever I want to do. My desire is to take the ‘best photos’. A desire to take a ‘better’ photo is always in my mind.

VK: What is a better photo to you?
NK: If I was a singer, I would get a voice coaching lesson, if I was an actor, I would concentrate on understanding the concept of the work. But as an image maker, improving technically is not something easy. Which is a territory of awakening and intuition to make it perfect. Preparing through variety of research, it’s about ‘feeling’, and not ‘seeing’. An image is taken when the shutter is closed or the shutter is flashed which no one can see. It’s about looking into the future. That’s why my photos are about the future and not my experience.

VK: A photographer is the one who looks at the world through the view finder, what do you think when you are taking a photo?
NK: The work is about to take a moment which people and I can’t see. The process of taking a photo includes your emotion, desire and the energy around the nature. And all the process of making an image is a mystery. Surely the way I expressed is by the ‘sound of language’ so everything should be looked at harmoniously. The work I’m doing is expressed through the language of sound and not through the language of the vision. I don’t say ‘it sounds right’ and ‘look right’. It’s about finding the ‘melody’, and not dissonance.

VK: An art director once said to me that “what we need in the ocean of fashion is to stand out” and another fashion designer said that “in the ocean of fashion, I’m looking for that one person who will wear my clothes.” What are you doing in the ocean of fashion?
NK: I’m showing one’s dream. McQueen wanted to express himself in all sorts of ways, and I couldn’t show everything about his work ‘visually’. He loved his job, and I loved the way I expressed it. It’s same for Yohji Yamamoto, my work titled the ‘Red Bustle’ shows his world or work. My work is to show one’s world. Not by the vision which you can’t see through the eyes.

VK: I’ve now become more curious about your ‘next step’. Can you share your next vision? 
NK: Our desire will open our future. I want to show which people can be immersed in. It could be a virtual model. An image can be connected through variety of ways, by not looking through a flat image but by looking by the wall around me and to go into it. And the image changes the people. It’s not something passive, but it’s something you can see actively. You can see many comments through the internet. And most of the comments are shown by ‘texts’, but this image could react to variety of people’s thoughts and can be changed.

VK: That’s an amazing futuristic story!
NK: The exhibition in 2009 had three of Naomi Campbell’s statues which were made of polystyrenes and could be used freely to the audience though the Show Studio website and communicated lively. It was a system where if someone in Russia draws with red paint, the one in America could carry on with writings. It was the way people could communicate visually. If the way was to look at one’s work passively, it will be something active in the future.

VK: Your aspiration for utopia and the works you create seem to be very closely connected. How can this world become a better world?
NK: As an image maker, this exhibition was the place where I could show my belief. I tried to show some anger, and worry inside me. I do not think every woman should be looked as one of a ‘figure’, ‘race’ or ‘colour’. I am angry that the brands and companies still reject using black models for the campaign and catwalks. So it is important to show my vision to fix this. For example, a disabled a man who were born without either arms or legs are still ‘valued’. But the ‘positive’ or ‘aspiring’ images of disabled are rarely seen as an art. I show one’s attractive characters through an image. It’s one of my way to express in this world of ‘injustice’.

VK: What is a beauty to you?
NK: Everyone has a moment when they are hugely loved by their parents. Yes, there may be some who have not missed out on this, but most parents have a moment when they think that the existence of their child is the most beautiful thing in the world. This is their truth.  But why do they forget about everything and say, ‘only they are pretty’. If one wants me to walk on the street with my eyes closed and look for the first beauty, I’m sure I could find one. We all have beautiful lives, and we need to show it. Either the curve of the hair, the shape of eyebrows, flesh or the length of figure are different, you can find what you like.

VK: Does the exhibition finish with this rather ‘political’ view?
NK: No, not yet. The 3D scanned Kate Moss figure comes out next. It is amazing that an ‘object’ could be produced through 3D scanning. German’s Nymphenburg, a pottery company, made this statue. From some point, fashion became one’s desire and envy, which is not much different from a girl from the farm who dreamed by looking at the picture on the ceiling of a huge Catholic church. From some point, an image creates a surprisingly huge desire. Kate Moss is the icon of variety of age group and her style and works are respected. She is probably the most photographed woman in the world and a person who has been seen on the billboard and from your homes for many many years through different works she has done. Although she was attacked by the press and paparazzis, she managed to stand up again. I hope that lots more ‘conversations’ are created through her statue.

VK: So how does the exhibition finish and this is the message behind the show? 
NK: The show moves on to the moving video clips. Fashion film became the most important reason for me to start Show Studio. The clothes are created for moving, and if one who makes the clothes think about its movement, sound and the shape, then I think that a moving video clip can express more things. For 100 years, we showed fashion though images. Famous people were doing all this, and from now on we should agree that we could produce more beautiful works through films.

VK: Is fashion and your works, the important themes that penetrate throughout the exhibition?
NK: Every work I did is a discussion about the fashion, and fashion is a tool which can show my opinions. Fashion is the most democratic form. Everyone has their own taste of clothing and choice to buy what they like. An autocratic state firstly regulated public’s clothing and hair styles, as it’s the basic form of suppression. Fashion is always the most important subject to me.

All images courtesy of Nick Knight