It’s a Sunday morning, and Nick Knight is in his uncharacteristically quiet Mayfair studio trying to get on top of post and emails. There’s a busy week ahead: a shoot for American Vogue, two days working with Kate Moss and a trip to Buckingham Palace to pick up an OBE. He allows himself a wry smile while pondering his meeting with the Queen: ‘It certainly isn’t something that was on my radar,’ he says. ‘But I’m very flattered.’
Nick Knight is the most celebrated fashion photographer in the world today. While best known for his unique brand of contemporary, fantastical gloss – including Manga-inspired Dior advertising campaigns – his early work was markedly different. He rose to prominence in the 1980s with a book of raw, black and white documentary shots of London skinheads. He went on to work with i-D magazine during its most influential era, injecting fashion editorial with a fresh kind of clubland-sourced verisimilitude, far removed from the runway lipgloss of Condé Nast. Always changing, always pushing boundaries, Knight worked with a tight-knit band of stylists and art directors and forged a bold, stark sophistication. His peers – including Dior’s John Galliano – would go on to become the new establishment. His work since, collaborating with the world’s most iconoclastic fashion designers and musicians (and Lady Gaga) has been nothing short of revolutionary, exhibited in some of the world’s most important galleries as fine art.
Knight has an absolute mastery of light and a choreographer’s eye for silhouette and attitude. He’s also constantly ahead of the technological curve, creating seemingly impossible images and flights of fantasy with sorcerous digital post-production. In 2000, in collaboration with art director Peter Saville, he launched SHOWstudio.com, a virtual gallery and interactive workspace for a whole host of his contemporaries. Knight’s own shoots are frequently streamed live via the site, as well as being reworked into arresting standalone short films in their own right. ‘It represents 100% of what I do now,’ he says. For Knight, fashion and film is the way forward – a natural progression for a visual artist, and an industry, informed by romanticised notions of men and women in motion.
‘The strongest element of fashion photography has always been movement,’ says Knight. ‘If you look at someone like Richard Avedon, there’s a feeling of energy and life in the work, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. I want it to feel like it’s bursting off the page. Film was an obvious thing to happen after photography, because if you have a medium that can distribute moving fashion, that’s what people will want. My films are seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, while a set of stills for a low circulation magazine may be seen by a couple of thousand. The figures just don’t compare.’
Fashion media in the 21st century is undeniably a world away from the Polaroid culture of i-D’s heyday. Starting in the late 1980s, Knight shot twelve catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto with the art director Marc Ascoli. The imagery from them has become truly iconic. A shot of model Susie Bick, smoking, artfully slumped sideways on a chair like a dancer from one of Yamamoto’s beloved Pina Bausch productions, may be one of the most famous fashion images of the last century. A sequence of silhouetted shots of Naomi Campbell, twirling around in a voluminous red coat, predated and outshone the strikingly similar global iPod campaign by two decades. All of the images had the urgency of motion that now informs Knight’s films, and at the time belonged to a world of print. Now we live in a digital world, where SHOWstudio streams catwalk shows live across the globe, and where in some cases film has taken the place of the runway: designer Gareth Pugh produces a film with the website each season to present his new collection, and last autumn showed a film without any formal catwalk presentation.
Although Knight’s world is driven by technology, he has little formal interest in it himself. ‘I’m not fascinated by technology,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in life. I’m not looking for the next invention or charting where the curve is. Technology is never quite as good as it could be, whether it’s a car you’re driving or a camera, but then that’s good because it makes us push things forward.’
Many photographers paint themselves into a commercially successful corner. Think of Paolo Roversi’s amber, painterly images shot with long exposures and an antique patina, or Bruce Weber’s all-American muscle boys with floppy fringes and waxed chests, cavorting in monochrome. The most consistent aspect of Knight’s work is that it dazzles. His work with the late Alexander McQueen had a brooding darkness and violence to it, frequently morphing models with wild animals, while his Vogue covers – including putting Kylie Minogue into a giant, burlesque Champagne glass – are effervescent and bright. Each shoot is different because of who he’s working with, and his desire to avoid repetition. ‘I don’t want to use the same lighting twice, whether that’s using the headlights of my car to light the subject, or taking a picture with my phone,’ he says. ‘I’m not interested in finding out the answers to questions I’ve already answered. If there’s any similarity in my work, it’s that I start at zero. It’s the same point that I started at 30 years ago standing in front of a group of skinheads.’ The only standard element of his working day is his perennial uniform of white tailored shirt, black Tricker’s brogues and Levi’s 505s.
The collaborative nature of Knight’s work is, in an industry of ego-driven auteurs, remarkable, particularly his collaborations with McQueen, John Galliano, and Peter Saville, each a notoriously determined visual artist in their own right. ‘The most difficult person I work with is myself,’ says Knight. ‘Everyone else pales into niceness. People are just people and whoever I’m working with, I want to understand the world how they see it. In each instance, it starts and works in a different way. With Galliano he explains the desires behind his collection, I see the live show, make proposals to him about how I might interpret those desires, then there’s a five to seven day shoot. There’s a “Dior lens” that we use that gives a signature element to the images and in the same way that some American R&B music is heavily produced, there are six to eight weeks of post production on each of the images.’
Musicians relish working with Knight, who can bring seemingly impossible, intangible elements to enhance the promotional aspects of their work far beyond the prosaic portrait. He depicted Björk being pierced and sewn in the controversial video for ‘Pagan Poetry’, while his cover artwork for Pulp and Suede defined their style for years. In each case, the imagery stemmed from the sounds. ‘When I worked with Suede on Coming Up, the starting point was Brett Anderson’s lyrics,’ says Knight. ‘Then there was the embrace of certain other references. Peter Saville and I were enamoured with a German painter called Paul Wunderlich.’ If the figurative aspects of the imagery (elegantly wasted youths on a mattress) came from Anderson, the tone from Wunderlich and the digital-psychedelic texture from Saville’s obsession with digital filters, then it was Knight who brought it all together, choreographed it and facilitated the final image – the conductor of a visual symphony, as always.
‘A shoot is always a performance,’ says Knight. ‘The more you get people involved, the better the performance is. I want to work with people who can show me things that I can’t see.’ Which is something Knight continues to do, in the most astounding of ways, for the rest of us.