As part of the Polimoda fashion publication THEOREM[A]: The Body, Emotion + Politics in Fashion, author and curator Filep Motwary spoke with iconic image maker Nick Knight, one of the world’s most influential and visionary photographers and founder of the award-winning fashion website SHOWstudio.
Published exclusively online, Motwary’s gripping interview with Knight explores the essence and perception of the body, poetic emotion and politics, touching specifically on the issues and controversies surrounding the current state of fashion.
I just got out of a lesson where I am doing Pilates, so for the last – probably eight years – I have a personal trainer teaching me Pilates, which I did partly because I used to work with a 10”x8” plate camera, which is, I don’t know if you know, a big camera that takes one sheet of film to shoot at a time. It’s about the size of a television set and really hard to move around with.
So working with that I started to tear all the muscles of my lower back and had really bad back pain. Generally speaking, photography is physically demanding work, so I thought to myself, this is ridiculous! I just turned 50 and I’m in pain, this is not good and I won’t be able to keep doing the things I love. I will not be able to stand up from a kneeling position to a standing position 300 times a day, and I got to get back into shape if I want to keep taking photographs. Pilates helped me! I wasn’t particularly sporty at school, it was just something I wasn’t into, but I‘ve always been tall and slender so my build belongs to someone who should have been into those things, if you want.
So now, from my 50th year onwards, I am discovering how my body works, the muscles in my body and how everything is linked and connected and that it is not just about parts. I find these functions all very fascinating, this physicality of how the body works. I don’t know if you are aware that the original plan was that I would become a doctor?
Yes, I started that course but never finished it, I just wasn’t interested in the hours it demanded to study and I was absolutely passionate about photography. But it still means I put some sort of scientific approach to my work and I have much fascination about anything scientific. Actually, I don’t think that the teaching of science and the arts should be things separated, they should be joined together. To get back to your question, since you have asked me specifically about the body, yes, I think it’s a pretty important part of understanding photography. I have a very good assistant, Britt Lloyd, and I am teaching her all the physical exercises she has to do, and although she is in her 20’s, she has actually started doing them now so she can maintain her creativity throughout her life. Photography is an incredibly physical pastime, it’s a performance and not just standing with a camera and clicking a button; certainly not in the way I work. You are moving a lot, even creating positions for the model and telling them how they should pose. So you are kind of modelling as well while you are taking the image. The body is incredibly important!
The way a fashion designer creates a garment has a lot to do with understanding how it will function and how it will look on the body. So the thing you are photographing has been designed for either helping the body to move, show it, at times by exaggerating proportions and making them look more or less than they are. So the body is fashion’s starting point in any case. Whereas we approach it with some sort of altering designs like corsets or high heels – which also serve to shape the body – or whereas it is the way that people put different tones of color – which makes the body get an even more different shape – the body is the beginning of everything fashion, as it is in photography where things are very much created around the body and for its presentation.
Of course, because you are creating an image or filming a person and that person is in an interaction with you, which forms a sort of relationship – which is different for every case – because you always have different relationships with everybody around you. Some are more personal, others, less – which doesn’t mean better or profound – but still they are different sorts of relationships. The understanding of who the model is and how they work is important as you are photographing not an object but someone who is very much alive. This person will give you things if you know how to take them or how to ask for them. So you need to understand this is a person and this is a different person to everybody else. This person has different skills, emotions and different ways of working. Part of the enjoyment is that you discover people through the lens. A good photographer, a good image maker, should live all their life through their lens. Every desire you have should not be expressed in any other form than through your lens. You often see people, total strangers that you just walk up to on the street or other times it’s people that you know a lot about. It might be the Queen of England, a famous film star, for instance.
So you know what it is that you are looking at and you have knowledge about it. Yet when you put them in front of the camera, you are still discovering them. To me it’s always a terrifying process, there’s never a session which I would do that is easy, although it might appear relaxed, in all my sessions I am trying to create things I’ve never seen before. So, I am always looking to discover things on the model and, you know, something I could be truly enchanted by.
Understanding the person you are working with in front of you has a lot to do with respect, something I am much loyal to. I don’t mind who it is whether it’s a huge Hollywood star or a young model that just started. They are all the same to me and I respect everybody in front of me.
I tend to believe that fashion is the strongest form of self-expression and probably one of the greatest art forms we have along with opera, ballet, painting, cinema and all those things. Fashion, certainly in Britain and probably also in North America, has been slightly played down in its importance to our society as an art form. None of us would just get dressed randomly; we make a series of choices that will be expressed to some degree and show who we are. The image that you create is expressed through the fashions you wear. Fashion is shaping the society.
If you look at the opposite of our societies in the West, if you look at the societies under dictators, the first thing that is taken away from people is the ability to express themselves through fashion. Dictators will make everybody look the same and will try to eliminate personality by removing the personal choice of freedom. You see awful examples of that in concentration camps or in prisons. It’s the dehumanisation of society by dressing them in uniforms, as the first step to control them. This is the reverse of fashion, while some of us enjoy playing with it [fashion] only a few people acknowledge it.
My father, for instance, was a psychologist who worked for the government in Britain and he would say, “I’m not into fashion at all” and “a gentleman should not be noticed by his apprentice” and all that. In all 84 years of his life, I never saw him in a pair of jeans, a t-shirt or trainers. I never saw him in anything trendy.
But he had a very strong sense of what he was wearing and awareness of what he thought he should look like, or better, how a gentleman should look like. He would dress to fit in with the British Government society. If you went into the building where he worked it was painted in all sorts of muted colours; there was not even any hint of decoration. My mother was the complete opposite, but that’s a different story. That’s why they were a couple, I guess. But I think yes, it is incredibly important, people almost despite themselves will express how they feel and who they are through fashion.
If you start to look at the armed forces, the military and how they are dressed, they have a very functional approach when it comes to fashion. But when it comes to decoration, which of course is an extension of fashion or art, the military is very interesting to look at because it’s so weirdly wrong. I went once to an officer’s mess where they all go to have their lunch and they had painted the room baby pink! I thought, “really?” It was a very low ceiling room, not even three metres high and they had put chandeliers! They have no artistic understanding whatsoever.
I don’t know if this answers your question, but people express themselves very clearly, while some people are good at it and know how to do it, other people can’t. But I think everybody does it and everybody to some degree chooses what he or she is going to wear as an expression of our personal freedom.
When I grew up in Britain in the 1970s, it was very focused on the clothes you wore. In my case, I was part of a gang and I had to wear identical clothes with the rest of the members. Something you can see in any gang-based culture. The tiny indicators of your identity are expressed through your clothes and also, as a skinhead that I was, that fashion was about change. The first person that would have a certain form of “sta-pressed” looked better than everybody else. The same went for the first person that would get a pair of penny loafers or whatever. We were kids you know, we didn’t have any money and no access to real fashion, so we were dressing in sort of certain codes that were important within the gang and clothes that carried signals. We should always see fashion not just in terms of what we see on the catwalk but most importantly of what we see on the street!
Emotion is the symbol of life! The clothes that I get to photograph have been made with emotion and have been created by people who are incredibly responsive to life itself, who are connected emotionally to life. The problem with the artists or the problem the artists have is that they are incredibly sensitive to things that others would not be upset about or pay attention to. They can find joy in things that don’t matter to most people. Somebody like Alexander McQueen might have found incredible joy just by walking to work and seeing somebody on the street and might have been transported by that in the same way that somebody else might do something that he’d hated and would have pushed him into deep despair.
So yes, artists are very sensitive. They are simply beings that in some ways are able to control how strong their emotions are and that’s what we want from them. They see things we cannot see, respond to all the different stimuli around them and they show us the world we miss. If you walked down the street and you missed you know, the leaves of the tree and how they decay to a certain tone, you miss a symphony of colours. I am perhaps overexpressing myself here but yes, emotion is vital to creativity and thus fashion!
It’s a very hard thing to do, to be honest. When you are working, it’s a flow of energy and you sometimes feel that everything is incredibly hard, that nothing works. It feels like trying to swim through honey. But then something happens, and things start falling into place and suddenly you feel the opposite of how you felt five minutes before and that everything is possible. It’s almost like a transcendental state where everything becomes much easier, maybe easy its not the right word; there’s not so much difficulty in the flow of creating that certain imagery at the end. Most photo sessions are hard and you have to work your way through them.
Then I reach a point where I see forms happening in front of me, a visual poetry. It’s like watching a musical form, the way the model moves or how the clothes float, the intensity of colours and how they change. It’s literally like watching a poem in front of me. When you get to that stage it is easy to take photographs but before it’s like an untuned orchestra, literally a mess (laughs)
– the taking of the photograph is just the starting point – but then when you look at the file or the negative or whatever you used to produce that photograph, you start to look at all parameters of that file. Then you look what you can do – traditionally in the darkroom, but now realistically on your computer screen – you start to look the parameters of it and how to combine it with other pictures, thinking, “if I put this next to this” and so on. And sometimes certain combinations can bring an even more exciting melody in front of me, an even more surprising poem and it goes on and on. I can spend a month or more working on images after I had taken them, so it’s a slight misunderstanding of how photography happens or how everything happens until you can actually say for a fact this is the moment where something happened and this is when I got something that I am very pleased with.
It’s true that you can look at a session and say that’s it, that’s my story. Sometimes you don’t see it; sometimes you are too busy working on the energy of the shoot that you don’t see that you are creating energy, neither are you looking for that particular divine moment. Other times you think you have nothing until you look at the image out of context and have a different and immediate understanding of it. Also, it’s a very different understanding of what you see with your eyes and what the film is recording. The same with post-production; what you can do then! Now there are so many exciting possibilities of how you can change the image that you took in the camera and make more of it, a new image, that I think there is a slight reluctance to believe anything other than a photographer is someone who goes into the studio or to a scenario and takes an amazing picture, and that is what a photographer is.
A photographer is an artist who thinks!
Of course! That’s what designers do. They create visual symphonies to be put in front of an audience – if you look at their planning and their timing. I mean I worked closely with a few designers like Gareth Pugh, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano. I have seen the process of how they prepare for a show and that is a series of emotional juxtapositions. So they manipulate their audience, both with music, the clothes, the presentation, the lighting and the idea. If you look back at some of the Alexander McQueen shows they are incredibly strong with bits of audience manipulation, a fashion theatre based on people and their emotions.
Recently, I did this film for Gareth Pugh because he did not present a collection this season in terms of putting the clothes on the catwalk. So we did a film together that was a very powerfully emotional one and we presented it at the BFI IMAX in London on a huge screen of 50 foot by 70! Massive, it was like a building. I had to sit and watch it with the audience, and you know it’s about 16-17 minutes long and at the end of the film I looked at the audience and they were all sitting with their mouths open; obviously the film had a strong emotional impact on them. So yes, absolutely, we create emotion for clothes and their presentation!
On a completely different level, when I grew up I was a skinhead, so I was part of a gang. People seeing me would be frightened if they didn’t know anything about me. By just looking at me they would presume a whole bunch of things about me because of the way I looked and dressed. This is an example of how fashion can manipulate people’s emotions! We can have it on a street level or through the higher cultural forms of the world. Yes! Fashion is absolutely there to manipulate!
It’s a complex set of different influences but I think that at the core of it, the business of fashion is to blame. The business of fashion is wrong in my opinion.
Fashion is presented by a series of dandies, artists, people who are flamboyant and that very is much is the role of John Galliano who is an eccentric dandy artist, or Rei Kawakubo … all these people serve to some degree as a role model. In the 80’s I think we saw a real commercialisation of the industry of fashion which then went on more profoundly in the 90’s; I think there was a real corporate take over of fashion and models’ expressions, they were giving them a personality on the catwalk. Partly because they had to present 70 garments in a line, on a wide catwalk and get it done quickly so it would sell, so the buyers would see them and blah blah blah. A lot of fashion kind of went into that formula but I think partly it was a way of saying, “OK, this is about the clothes and not about the models”, partly some designers didn’t want that slightly catwalk presentation that models made popular in the 70’s and the 80’s, and they no longer wanted that sort of overly character full presentation. It was cooler and more in fashion to present the clothes in a way that Margiela did or Helmut Lang, shows where models were not encouraged to be emotional. And these ways became fashionable suddenly, and they still are.
At one point it was very fashionable to have Pat Cleveland dancing down the catwalk but fashion changes as people want things they haven’t seen before, so there are different moves that happen and this is one thing. I think the current state of the business of fashion is due to the over-commercialisation of corporatisation of fashion. There is a definite swing back towards much more emphasis on the models now. It was just a set of different influences, commerce and different things that formed how fashion is now presented, without any room or possibility for models’ self-expression. Just a straight-line walk, no smile and that’s it. If you looked at some of Moschino’s shows, they were very much about him and loving the models and sending them out to perform because they were big personalities. You have so many models now and if you’re putting a show with 70 people in, 70 different looks, like Mr Armani does, for example, or Prada, you need to have a good show plan as it is indeed very hard having 70 people in character or expressing their emotions. There’s a lot of stuff going on!
And without saying anything nasty about these people, these designers are trying to say something with their clothes and they are talking to a set of journalists who are very good at understanding what their message is. In a way having a model who is dancing and making an emotional presentation of the garments just doesn’t seem appropriate for them. So there are different reasons, some have to do with commerce and others with fashion.
Pop stars are in a way their own fashion designers. Certainly those people I have worked with like Lady Gaga or Bjork are. The moment Gaga would put on a young designer he’d become famous in an instant. Her catwalk was from the front of her hotel to the limousine, which is a distance of four metres, and that alone would create a new designer every day! There is such a thirst for images of her. It works the same with other stars. You get A$AP Rocky to wear your belt, your belt will sell.
People like Kate Moss or Kanye West, every time they step foot into the world there are 50, 100 people wanting to photograph them and they share these pictures across the world. Whether it’s Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga, these are people that have incredible force in fashion. I worked with Lee McQueen and John Galliano, then I worked with Lady Gaga and Kanye West and trust me, they are designers in the same way. They all express fashion powerfully and they helped to change how fashion looks today.
I remember Kanye saying to me, “this is my girl, she is called Kim I’m gonna put her on the cover of American Vogue and she will become the most famous woman in the world”. I thought OK, good luck… and he did. So these are people who have the power and a grasp on media and whatever they do is news to the rest of us.
If you look at a magazine like Vogue, I don’t know what Italian Vogue sells but the British Vogue is probably 150K to 200K, American Vogue perhaps a million and a half per month while Kim Kardashian has 100 something million followers who check on her every second. She is a much bigger platform, if you want, than any of the conventional magazines, and I think what’s really been the shift, at least for me in the last 20 years, is that the power of the magazine is drained away. The magazine was the one place we would rely on from the 40’s until 10 years ago as the only way to understand fashion, with a strong voice and opinion.
Now that voice is lost. Other people have the voice now. You cannot expect somebody who has 100 million followers to not have a voice that is louder than a magazine that only sells 10 thousand copies. You are irrelevant!
And I think what people have held onto for this past 20 years is this belief that what happens in magazines we all know is important, whereas it isn’t.
People like Gosha Rubchinskiy do not need that sort of press, they do not think of that sort of press. Fashion expressed itself in a certain way for over 100 years and now this has changed to a completely new way. All change, in my opinion, is probably for the better. Humans by definition are always in search of new things anyway, so what we are looking for at the moment is better ways of functioning in fashion, perhaps less control. Part of the problem with the magazines, the reason for their own downhill is because they would say, “you know, so and so takes five pages of advertising every month, therefore they have their clothes in. Not only that, I need to have an interview with them, feature them in total looks …” and it became very much an antiquity.
As a reader you were not shown the best of fashion, you were shown what the advertisers have bought, and the magazines were not anymore a creative place where you wanted to be. Of course, the advertisers wanted to see their money on the pages but then they stopped fashion from being expressive and emotional or as beautiful as it has to be.
I think when we had those awful changes, McQueen taking his own life, Isabella Blow taking her own life and then John Galliano collapsing to the pressures of working for a large company, that was a very low moment in fashion. Just because John was such a huge force, Lee (McQueen) was such a huge force and their loss was like losing Da Vinci or Mozart, if you follow me! You can’t just ignore these losses and its effects as it was such a real shockwave to fashion and right afterwards there was a huge void left that was very hard to fill or replace.
What is left now for us is to look to more emerging designers from a ground-roots level and not so much at designers who have lived through that.
Yohji and Rei, for example, they’ve been creating for more than 40 years now, so they have seen the changes and have also felt and experienced the loss of people like Galliano for a certain amount of time as much as everybody else did.
The theatricality in McQueen’s shows, and to the same degree John’s spectacular presentations, didn’t seem appropriate afterwards, for others to rush in and fill that vacuum, fill in the void. So I think people in respect for what these great people so genuinely offered to fashion, they changed the ways of presenting and looking at things. I think you have spectacle now but it doesn’t feel hearts-on as it’s very corporate. You have spectacle with people like Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel…
It is absolutely a different kind of spectacle, yes. To me, I have all respect for Karl Lagerfeld, yet it doesn’t feel like it touches the heart. There’s a problem there and it has to do with business and when it gets too much involved you lose the point of the art. You see the same issues in paintings or any other form of creative expression. In the last ten years or so there has been much more involvement of business in fashion and it slightly killed the creativity and alienated people, they feel they’ve just been sold to big companies and brand new markets that are opening up in the East, in Russia and elsewhere and there is this rush to make more and more money. It doesn’t feel like the right way to behave at the moment, so I think the over commerciality of it has been awful. However, there are a lot of interesting things going on and not everybody is the same. There are people who are doing interesting things, there are new brands coming up like OFF-White or Alyx. All these newer brands are doing things in a very different way and they are looking at sports, they search for ways to mix sports and couture, for instance. And they all come from a system they have been shut out from!
They created their own system. It’s fantastic!
Gosha Rubchinskiy, when he sells his clothes (at SHOWstudio) we’d sell them within a day; you know he has a massive fan base.
And now there’s another phenomenon, clothes changing hands as soon as they are sold. The resellers, they walk into a shop like MachineA or Supreme, for example, they would buy a t-shirt for 80 pounds and re-sell it to some kid just outside the boutique for 200 pounds or sell it on eBay for 400 pounds. We have a very different economy around fashion at the moment. There’s been such a change in the way fashion expresses itself, the way it operates, the system of fashion has happened in the last 20 years, since I started SHOWstudio, not because of it but since I started it. We are looking at a really, really different landscape.
Thank you, I’d like to think so. There was a certain need for a change in the system, not only I felt that, but the people did as well. But I do think there’s a whole new way of working and a new way of looking and expressing yourself through fashion. To my mind now we have become more artistic and better than perhaps 5-10 years ago. Of course, there’s always good people doing good things…
Different things. Probably we all seek confirmation that we are worthy of being here or for someone to tell us “Yes, you have done a good job, yes, you are exciting”. We are all looking for praise and ways to underline what we are doing in life and perhaps we are looking at how other people are succeeding or they are proposing something that seems appealing and attractive to us. To some degree that’s demonstrated by emulating that, we dress in a particular way because it says things about what we like and us. In a similar way to what people did in the 1950’s, you know, the Bobby Soxers, for example, who liked Frank Sinatra or the fans of The Beatles later or whoever it was back then. Those people loved these pop stars and the only way to show their love or devotion was to mimic the way these stars would dress.
Certainly people like Rick Owens or Rei Kawakubo have got that same adoration as pop stars had in the past. Not everybody is going to get your dressing codes but some people and the people that you care about will; and you want them to be exactly right.
One day you wear a pair of trousers that touch your shoes, the next day you want to wear a pair of trousers that is three inches above your shoe. To some extent, it is about the globality of emotion, as we all, at least to some degree, have the same influences. We see the same films, read the same books, eat the same food, understand the same things. Now we can speak pretty much a global conversation, so I can get on my phone and publish a picture and it will be seen in Mexico and Moscow at the same time. We have global audiences now, global communication and those people in Mexico or Melbourne can all write to me and talk to me, and I can see what they have done too. Today is about global consciousness, and I think many other things are coming our way. Trends will in time manifest themselves across the world; however, there are still different societies and cultures that understand these changes differently. The people from Saudi Arabia or other countries in the Middle East have a very different way of expressing themselves because, let’s say, culturally you are not allowed to have a tattoo, you are not allowed to be gay and so on.
So these things affect how people express themselves and they how people use fashion. It’s the first time in human existence that we are able to communicate at this level, we still have very different cultures, very different moralities and desires. You know North America is a case in point, it’s a very different culture from Italy or France. Part of the problem of global communication is the people who control some of those huge platforms impose the morality of their country based on a financial model that is only based on a few people. These are some of the problems we will have to deal with in the future, but I think we will find solutions.
No, as all fashion is based on change. We can have enormous respect for things but it doesn’t mean they should be fashionable. I think there’s enormous respect for people like Rei Kawakubo. Younger people though, don’t know who these legendary people are and I’m not sure if that really matters in the end, to be honest. They will find out and they will put them in respect in terms of their later lives, but I don’t think necessarily that’s a bad thing. Particularly when working within fashion and fashion being a strange, future-based medium and art form – you are always looking at the future, you are always predicting and it’s never about what you see now but what is coming next.
I think this is a very different way of understanding the art form; a painting is not that, a film is not that.
Fashion is about predicting our future desires. To some degree, it’s good that younger people are freed from the past because it’s not necessarily important to understand the past when you desire something. You don’t know why you desire it but you do!
I see so many students coming out of Central Saint Martins; others post things on Instagram. Who makes sense of the world in terms of their values? I think what they propose is very pure, it isn’t so referenced and it isn’t so codified. It is only when you work for 30 or 40 years then you understand the value for some of those image makers or designers. But I don’t think to create something in fashion, which is some sort of common desire that you are proposing to people, this is how they all want to be and how they all want to look. They can perhaps endorse the same values with the designer who suggests.
That’s the point perhaps where you have to be knowledgeable of the past and respectful. Our human desire is incredibly strong and it’s the power that pushes fashion forward, but I think desire comes from a whole different range of effects. I see it a lot on young people I check on Instagram. The references they combine are incredible and this is not because they know too much. Their youth gives them the freedom to combine whatever they like, the freedom to create and not the burden of the past. Knowing too much does not free us, on the contrary, it keeps us in a frame.
In fashion, it is easy to make a statement, but then you have to do it again in six months’ time. Ten years later and after many statements you start asking yourself, what am I doing, why am I here. That is the point when you start questioning the reasons you got involved in the first place.
Young designers’ original proposals are about rejecting whatever already exists. They want to start from scratch. Look at what Yohji and Rei did when they started; they were rejecting Western fashion, they were rejecting even Japanese fashion, they created their own vocabulary that is still relevant today!
Portrait photo by Ruth Hogben.
Thank you, Emily Knight, Charlotte Knight, Britt Lloyd, Rob Rusling and Carrie Scott at SHOWstudio.