nick knight’s manifesto for now
The game-changing photographer and filmmaker shares his thoughts on Instagram, optimism, and the importance of making mistakes.
Photography Nick Knight. Fashion Director Edward Enninful. [The 30th Birthday Issue, No. 308, Pre-Fall 2010]
In July 2016, Nick Knight shared a grainy image of model Zora Star in a white gown on his Instagram. It was from the first SHOWstudio live performance in 2003 and was done on a webcam which could only put out one still every minute. The performance was titled Sleep and featured eight models, dressed up and in full makeup, sleeping through the entire night under the watchful digital eye. Like most of Knight's work, Sleep used cutting edge technology to tell a story of humanity, our fears and longings, and reimagined once again the eternal archetype of beauty. For the upcoming Nick Knight solo show at Daelim Museum in Seoul opening on October 6, the image will be printed nine feet tall. The technology he used back then seems hopelessly outdated — but the beauty is timeless.
Since the start of his career in 1980s at i-D, Knight has been responsible for many moments which redefined fashion: from 30 i-D covers to the iconic Red Bustle image for Yohji Yamamoto in 1986 to a live stream of Alexander McQueen's last show Plato's Atlantis in 2009. Those were the moments pioneering the new, previously unimaginable ways to see things — and always the moments of heightened emotion. Having worked with Bjork, Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West, Knight has shaped modern day iconography, our views on fame, success, love, and art in its most dynamic, ever-shifting iteration. Despite his own success, Knight also has always been in favor of dismantling hierarchies of fashion industry and beauty standards. Throughout his career he's kept the mindset of a free-thinking outsider and a restless optimist. Ahead of a retrospective of his work opening in Seoul, Nick offers a manifesto for today and tomorrow.
On starting out in the fashion industry:
"Strangely, I came to fashion industry on the wave of art directors and editors trying to get back control over magazines. I came at the end of 1970s, early 80s, and I think 60s and 70s were big years of fashion photography. Certain photographers became huge stars, got very extravagant and demanding of the magazines' layout. I think there was a reaction within the magazines. I didn't want to be a part of that scene, it didn't feel right. Then I found, by coincidence, i-D magazine which was just starting in the 80s. Then in 1986 I found Marc Ascoli and Yohji Yamamoto doing these limited edition catalogues, and Yohji would say, "Let the photographers express themselves about my clothing. I don't want them to show me my clothing, let them express the feeling about my clothing. I'll print two thousand, send them to all the people respect: designers, architects, poets." It was a very beautiful way of working. Marc Ascoli, the French art director, knew a lot about fashion, and he was my teacher. So I lived in this bubble, and didn't engage with commercial magazines much. Then i-D magazine sent me to photograph people I liked the look of. To be honest, that's still what I do now, on Instagram."
"I still find Instagram very exciting, particularly when it comes to communication with people and discovering people to work with: illustrators, hairdressers, models, or someone who I think should be a model. I think it's quite an interesting way of finding models because, conventionally, you get sent a model car, then you book them, they come to the studio. Of course, they are a person, not a flat image. When you find people on Instagram you see their life, what they do, how they like to be — you see a lot more about them. With Tessa Kuragi, for instance, I followed her and she direct messaged me back and asked if I wanted to shoot her, and then she started talking to me about her life over DM on Instagram and over email, and I found out a lot about her. So rather than posting something on somebody, it felt like she was generating it."
"I'm suspicious of fame because it's quite an abstract concept. I'm never aware of how much I'm known or not known. Increasingly through Instagram and other social media you get the idea but it's still very odd when you contact people and they say things like, 'I've always loved your work.' On a personal level is quite tricky because you are not the person they perceive you to be. And at some point you know when you start the relationship with people who met you this way, that they would be let down because you can't possibly be the person they want you to be. Fame is also a very strange and frustrating thing to want to have because you're never fully aware of it, it's not tangible. People get really hooked on it, and although they get upset that people scrutinize their lives too closely, they still crave it. It still seems to be the motivation for them to do things. I'm not saying it's true for Kanye West or Lady Gaga, but it's true for many people I work with — they are addicted to recognition."
On game-changing technology:
"I'm not particularly technically-minded but every time I see stuff in the way I haven't seen it before, I get very excited. At the moment I'm very into infra-red apps, a little thing you stick on your iPhone, which allows you you to see things in terms of heat. A few years ago we started using a program called ZBrush which allows you to change an image in a 3D space. It can give depth and you can pull the image through itself — which opened up a completely new dimension in image making, a middle ground between a film and photography. For a long time, 15-20 years, I've been looking at scanning in three dimensions; it's really exciting because it takes you from someone who creates a photograph to somebody who creates an object. It's a very different perception of who you are and how your work is. It's still technically quite embryonic, it's very advanced but not very current — not everybody has a desktop printer for printing objects every day. When we did Kanye West's 'BLKKK SKKKN HEAD' video, we 3D scanned him and then we took him down to motion capture studio and put one of those lycra suits with lots of white bobs. You could apply Kanye West movement to anything else, or you could apply the movement of a horse to Kanye West, or you could apply the movement of an eagle or a puma, and it wouldn't quite fit. You put the information inside the structure and you get it to move, and then it moves in a way that you don't expect — it shows you a whole range of things."
On the importance of mistakes:
"I like glitches and mistakes, things which people who designed the software or a piece of equipment would hope that you didn't see. When you see a mistake it's like a chink in the armor, seeing through something you weren't meant to. Mistakes are possibilities you wouldn't previously have looked at. If the camera malfunctions, you'd see something you wouldn't have seen, and after that I'd get the camera to malfunction by abusing it. I'd shake the camera really hard. I went through a whole phase of really shaking the camera; I thought in the physicality of the movement there would be new images, the colors would blend in a different ways. I tried for a while giving really long exposures, 30 second or longer, to see colors mixing and blurring. It's not always about the new app or the new camera — there are often just different ways of working."
On today and tomorrow:
"At the moment we're going through change, and I think the fact that it's so difficult is the sign of size of that change. There is the rise of restrictive and backward-looking dogma, fear, religions, people talking in very limiting ways. They don't expand the people's vision of themselves, they reduce them to countries, religions, sexes. I think there are things like new identities on the internet and the possibilities to fall in love on the internet, and the possibilities to have human connections on the internet allows us the things we didn't have before. Our society was so coded and very physical in very mundane ways. I think internet brings up a prospect of becoming very different people. When you offer such a huge change, people get scared, and the size of that change is so huge, I don't think there was anything like this ever in our existence as a species. I think we're seeing something incredible happening."
On expanding ourselves:
"We've been researching the Oculus Rift at the moment, and that's a very different way of approaching imagery. It's the whole new attitude, the virtual worlds we are creating. It gives us new ways of being different versions of ourselves, having different avatars, and I think it makes us broader as people. Previously we've been so confined with our physicality, our social positions, religions, genders, things which are so confining to us. I think people are much more flexible than we are allowing ourselves to be. I'm an optimist by nature and I believe very strongly in human rights, I believe very strongly that we'll get to a better place and we'll all find better ways of being."
On being optimistic:
"At the moment my life is much more exciting than I could ever imagine it. You look back to the example of photographer from the 70s, and it's pretty restrictive. Now the possibilities an image-maker has are so different — and this is just 20 years after the internet came around. We are at the beginning of something huge, and it's definitely how it feels. I don't see it as fearful but fascinating and glorious."
Nick Knight: Image runs runs at the Daelim Museum October 6, 2016 to March 26, 2017.
Text Anastasiia Fedorova