Fani Mari: Nick Knight and the State of Modern Photography

I’m in a clean space with minimal furniture and natural light from above. There’s artwork, paintings, photo prints, a pair of furry rabbit ears and some strange-looking stones.

Nick Knight is tall and lean, with a strong reassuring smile. He’s in his everyday uniform of a crisp white shirt, black trousers and matching blazer. When on a shoot, he’s in a white shirt and dark-wash vintage Levi’s 505s.

Knight, 56, used to be a photographer, but for many years he has described himself as an image-maker because the word ‘photography’ no longer covers his craft.

He started taking photographs in 1979 but notes that, even by then, the industry was shifting, and that is why photography is no longer what he says he is doing. In 2000, he founded seminal fashion website SHOWstudio with his friend Peter Saville, the legendary graphic designer. They wanted to show what goes on behind the scenes (the studio) and record the entire creative process. Knight believes this is beneficial to both the creative and the audience. It also helps with investigating clothing through sound and motion – “perhaps the last great challenge in fashion image making,” as he puts it.

The idea for SHOWstudio came when Saville mentioned he had a friend in LA who was doing something on the Internet like an arts programme – a summation of ideas and wanted more people to get involved. Knight said: “That’s fine, Peter, but why are we doing it for some guy in LA and not for ourselves and putting together all the art that we like and some art we’ve made and some interviews?”

Once the platform was created, it was much easier to produce things using moving images and exposing them to the world. Knight’s first contact with fashion film came from a short series with British supermodel Naomi Campbell. She was just 15 years old at the time and starring in a campaign for Yohji Yamamoto. She was dancing on her own in a beautiful dress and Knight felt that the final images were truly spectacular – her dancing so mesmerising – that it had to be filmed for others to see.

Someone suggested he could just put a camera on a tripod and record his sessions in case anything amazing happened. From that moment onwards, Knight decided he would film every photoshoot he did. But at that time, there was no platform for fashion film – and no Internet. “I started looking at [cassettes from the shoots] and I saw that there was no difference in the lighting. it looked just as beautiful on the film as it did on my still,” Knight recalls.

In 1993 Knight thought of making his own magazine but it didn’t feel particularly exciting for him. What he thought of doing was a bit different than a magazine and proved to be quite prophetic. “A really early (birth) of SHOWstudio, [was] a VHS cassette I was going to send out every month to people. I wanted to feature the things I liked, including fashion films.”

Those tapes were, in a way, a precursor to SHOWstudio, which began to take shape in 1995. The most important idea behind SHOWstudio, according to Knight, is that fashion designers while creating their collections never imagine them as a still image. “They imagine the dress to be moving, they imagine it in 360 (degrees). And fashion photography has to some degree compromised that vision, because it had to. As a photographer you can only show one view and that’s it.” Film, though, can liberate that restriction and give the audience a full view and under- standing of the garment.

Knight’s work on fashion film is informed by his fashion photography background. The language he uses takes the summation of a dress and brings everything this dress represents in a short burst so that it is seen in movement. “For me it isn’t to drag out this narrative and tell a story with it. It’s literally just to see the thing in movement as opposed to still.”

That’s all I think fashion film should be – and that’s not at all how it’s developed,” he says. Other creatives strongly believe that fashion film should have a narrative as opposed to simply being a photograph in movement.”

This is why his fashion films tend to be two minutes long and based on the language of fashion photography. But he still hasn’t completely defined it yet and is exploring relentlessly to try and determine whether the ideal length is two minutes, or even a two-second gif.

What’s really important for Knight is the person who edits the film. They should really be knowledgeable about fashion, he insists. “If you have somebody that doesn’t understand fashion they’re not going to choose the right moment… That’s when I’m gonna fire my shutter and take that picture. Because that’s the best moment for that dress, so you have to extend it. You need somebody like Younji [film editor at SHOWstudio], somebody who understands when that dress looks best,” he says. The film should be about the dress, so the desirability of the clothes in the film is fundamental to Knight.

Knight finds the need to label and define this new genre of film a little tiresome, as it compartmentalises his work and hinders the medium from developing. “I’m much, much happier with the possibilities that are offered to me now in every sector of what I do,” he says.

As for the future, he argues that it’s for the young generation to experiment and not be daunted by the new genre. Knight hopes and believes fashion film is going to become as powerful and entertaining as photography, available to buy and view in either short or long form. He says: “It’s a peculiar art form and it relies on people seeing it, and desiring it, and wanting it.”

IN HIS OWN WORDS – NICK KNIGHT’S CAREER AND MANIFESTO

“Photography doesn’t exist anymore. Rightly, as you said, photography has a very clear set of boundaries. When I first started in 1979 you could describe photography to an alien and they would get it. And that’s the medium that existed starting in eighteen-whatever-it-is and going on to now and hasn’t changed.”

“Almost instantly to when I started it, it shifted. It started doing things under printing machines so actually when the images would go to press you could stretch them. It doesn’t seem like much now. I started stretching my images to go that way rather than that way. Anyway, the things that we do now, on our iPhones or Photoshop and Final Cut and Premier and all the different apps that we use, none of that stuff is within the boundaries of defining photography. And the problem being there is that people still think it’s photography cause it still looks a bit like photography and they start to say, ‘Yeah, but you took one head from one picture and another head from the other picture and you changed the background and you dropped this’ and you say, ‘Yes, because that’s what I do. It’s part of my craft. I do all those things and a lot more’.”

“And all those things are part of my craft and I don’t want to be part of photography, that’s not what I do anymore. I do all those other things, which would have never contained and never been defined as photography, they were always outside of that. When photography was alive in its heyday you couldn’t do any of them. With an old fashioned camera you can’t do any of those things. And on top of it, you have a different distribution level, whether you’re distributing in a magazine or in a book or a gallery but mainly in a magazine, that’s how great photography existed in Vogue or Life and that’s champion photography. Now you’re distributing on the Internet, and you have a screen that’s got phosphorus on it and it glows in the dark, which before had silver in it and it shined, it’s a different thing. ‘Glowing’ and ‘shining’ is not the same thing.”

“So you have quite magical difference between the two media but none of the things that define photography. You could quite easily define it, now define what I do, or the new medium. And the results of my working, the result of looking at things and producing some comment upon them isn’t confined to a still image in a magazine anymore. It can be an animated gif, it can be a film, a statue, anything you want, all those different things.”

“There’s nothing that I do anymore that can be defined as what I used to do as a photographer, there’s a clear distinction. For me photography is dead, it isn’t the medium everybody else uses and where the problem comes in my belief is that we have that new medium, which is super exciting, yet undefined, and it’s been held back, by old photographers saying ‘oh that’s not real photography, you cannot use your iPhone’ and all these things.”

“There is this sort of reluctance to accept this new imagery and to accept the things we can do on apps. People feel threatened by it and try to restrict it. And it reminds me, obviously I wasn’t around, but it reminds me of the debate that must have happened when photography first started and the artists thought that ‘It’s not an art form, it’s just a mechanical thing, and anybody can do it, and we are craftspeople and can paint and anybody can take a camera,’ and it reminds me of that feeling. Painters getting together and fighting photography. And now it’s almost a sort of reaction in a similar way, to this new media, which I don’t think it’s been described or defined at all yet, cause we’re still pushing it against its boundaries.”

“If you make sculptures with photographic language you can’t define them. And trying to define what I do, and trying to define the things I can do in any old terms, like photography or sculpture or painting.  (To Fani) Behind you is a photograph that’s been printed onto acetate. The paint can’t stick to the acetate, so it runs off it. It’s paint and I’m moving it around and I’m treating it with heat and steam to make the paint move, so I’m not dealing with photography anymore. I’m dealing with paint. So is that a painting or photograph? I don’t care, it’s the truth.”

Fani Mari is a fashion journalist and editor based in London. She hails from Greece. Fani tweets at @fan_breakeven and has a personal style blog, Breakeven London.

Picture of Lady Gaga by Nick Knight

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