The British photographer Nick Knight refers to himself emphatically as a “communicator.” Certainly, from the moment his revolutionary fashion website SHOWstudio.com went live at 19:27 GMT on 27 November 2000 it has helped to redefine how fashion is both communicated and experienced. But this isn’t the first time Knight has inspired change. From his photographs of the double amputee, Aimee Mullins, as a broken Victorian doll dressed in a crinoline, a suede T-Shirt by Alexander McQueen and a wooden fan jacket by Givenchy, to the first commercial photos of the (then) size-16 model Sophie Dahl, Knight’s work unfailingly forces us to examine the beauty ideals of an industry that is obsessed with perfection; an industry, which has only one beauty ideal.
Dal Chodha: People always seem to introduce you as a photographer who has consistently challenged traditional perceptions of beauty. Would you say that this has been your objective or is this just a primitive impression that people have of what you do?
Nick Knight: I don’t think ever I really wanted to challenge notions of beauty as such, but I just knew when I started out that no one else seemed to be photographing what I thought was beautiful. The things I would get excited about, or the people I was falling in love with were not being reflected anywhere in the magazines, films or anywhere else.
So you couldn’t really find a connection to a lot of the images that were surrounding you?
Yes, that was exactly it. When we shot people with severe disabilities wearing McQueen’s clothes for Dazed & Confused in 1998 for example, there was no aspirational imagery of people with disabilities. There’s sensitive imagery and there’s barbaric imagery, but there was nothing – and is nothing – that says, ‘fuck they’re gorgeous’. Someone like the Aimee Mullins, who had had her legs amputated below the knee when she was one year old, was – and is – an incredibly beautiful woman.
People Magazine in the US named Aimee one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world in 1999…
I just remember seeing her winning her gold medal, wearing these metal blades on her legs that made them look like a panther’s legs. She was a vision of such power and sensuality and I had never seen that before. I hadn’t seen any documentation or artistic offering that depicted people with disabilities in such a way. I don’t even like the word disabilities either. There are whole ranges of different physical forms that have been put forward as beautiful in the last twenty years. With thanks to people like Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga, more people have been encouraged to rethink what we’re used to believing is beautiful but in the world of mainstream fashion and beauty, there are few visionaries. The only representation of beauty that exists tends to be almost neoclassical or at its worst, a Barbie doll. There’s such blandness in saying that everybody should look one particular way.
From such a young age via Facebook or Instagram or whatever, people are forced to engage with images of themselves constantly; we are exposed to so many different aesthetics at the click of a button. I think this helps culture enormously but eventually, we can become so overwhelmed that it can force a type of regression. Isn’t everyone now striving for the same visual ideal? There seems to be one universal way that people think they ought to dress and think.
You see it a lot in the aesthetics of cosmetic surgery actually. I think cosmetic surgery is incredibly exciting; we’re now knowledgeable enough to recreate a human organ by printing it out of cells for god sake! The medical advances are phenomenal and I don’t like it when people say that cosmetic surgery is bad or people should not want to try and change themselves – we’re an inventive species. What I get upset about is that so much cosmetic surgery is just so fucking boring.
You mean it’s just making everyone look the same?
The repetition of this one style of nose, a type of look – it’s so dull! Cosmetic surgery is obviously often in the hands of surgeons and they often have no artistic sensibility whatsoever.
Before going to art school, didn’t you enrol on a course to study human biology? You thought you wanted to be a doctor?
Yes and I was kicked out after a year but more importantly, that is why I became so aware that the artistic sensibilities of my fellow students at the time were pretty much nil. They were very intelligent people who worked really, really hard, but they weren’t artistic and did not have a great understanding of artistic tradition. So, invariably when they all excelled in science subjects and graduated as surgeons, the realisation that a huge amount of money can be made from cosmetic surgery pushes them into it but then their application of beauty comes from a very boring and traditional, artistically uneducated perspective. They can do amazing things of course but wouldn’t it be more exciting for people to change their bodies in a more dramatic way? With huge canines or whatever? I think we’re not that far off from gangs of kids thinking, you know what, I’m bored of having fucking tattoos and piercings; I want huge incisors to look like a panther! You only need somebody to do it well and then everybody else will want to do it. It’s those sorts of extremes of pushing appearances that are coming but will be few and far between.
I guess we’re most used to seeing it in people like Marylin Manson, even though that’s a more gothic version of what you’re alluding to. Would the mainstream ever embrace that look though? I mean Lady Gaga’s wardrobe experiments have encouraged a whole host of people to try new things, but there’s less permanence to wearing a costume over having extreme cosmetic surgery.
Well I mean, I was a teenager in the seventies and looking back, it was a super exciting time to grow up because you had such a transition of cultural movements. From the skinheads to the end of hippies going into glam rock, which then goes into punk and Northern soul and then disco and new-wave, ending up with hip-hop and Afrika Bambaataa – it really was a huge scale to experience.
…they’re all linked to musical movements, but I don’t think that happens in the same way now.
Music was so important when I was growing up in terms of working out how you were supposed to look and what you defined as beautiful. I started off listening to rock bands like Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin. Then I moved onto Marc Bolan and Bowie; that was my inspiration. Then of course there were films like Visconti’s Death in Venice that had this beautiful boy wearing a white sailor suit, which became my sort of vision of what I thought I wanted to look like (with a bit of Woodstock thrown in). I wouldn’t dress incredibly over the top for my surroundings as I grew up in provincial England, but I was wearing makeup at the age of 14 and that got me into some fights with the local boys. If you grow up in provincial anywhere you often feel that life would be better anywhere else, and luckily I was just close enough to London to be able to get there at the weekends.
Did you fetishise London? I think for those of us that grew up in small places, there’s often this feeling that a big city like London can answer all of your problems; the streets will be full of creative people all willing to take you on some sort of artistic journey.
No I didn’t actually fetishize London at all. I wasn’t unaware of London and I knew there were exiting things in it but it always felt too big for it to be part of my everyday thoughts. I remember going to Biba in the early seventies and seeing a girl with dyed purple hair thinking how exiting it all was. I remember these flashes that made it feel like London was the place to be.
Where were you training to be a doctor?
Of all places…the Kings Road in London! I was at Chelsea College of Science, which was then part of London University and it was opposite Chelsea Arts College. It wasn’t the right time to be on the Kings Road (1978) but it wasn’t far off the right time. Seditionaries was around, SEX wasn’t open anymore but a year earlier I had come down to London and managed to be on the Kings Road at the time when the street battles between young punks and aging teds happened.
Which side were you on?
Well I didn’t fit dress-wise into any of the groups. I didn’t really look like I belonged anywhere and I never really have to be honest. When I saw the gangs fighting, what I noticed was that on both sides there were skinheads.
Your first major photographic project was to document skinhead culture and your pictures went on to form your first book Skinhead, published in 1982. What was it about the culture that interested you?
Mostly I was interested in the skinheads because it rejected every white middle class value that had come from my parents. In a rather self-imposed way, I adopted it as my expression of discontent of my surroundings and myself. The punks just didn’t hit it hard enough for me.
Were the punks rejecting beauty? The big show at the MET in New York recently has reignited discussion about the movement’s cultural legacy. We often think of a punkish attitude as one that is a dismissal of traditional beauty, even though I think there is something exquisite about someone who is uncompromisingly inviting you to look at them.
Punk was more about beauty on your own terms. From that time you have different icons of punk beauty from Patti Smith photographed by Mapplethorpe in a white shirt or Siouxsie Sioux with her heavy eye make-up and dark hair. If you look at Sue Catwoman – who is one of the major iconic pinups of that time – she was such a visionary. I mean a woman who has literally turned herself into a cat not only takes nerve in the 1970s and incredible artistic vision, but also is really a powerful image of female beauty.
How much do you think about beauty when doing your work? You’ve said before that your understanding of beauty changes depending on your mood, but does your perception ever match the mainstream’s?
I hardly every agree with the mainstream and I don’t know if there is a universal vision of beauty that can be agreed upon to be honest. I tend to think we all have our own. There is incredible beauty in Japanese art and for a long time I was fascinated by Japan and later with Manga. The picture of Devon Aoki I took for Visionaire 20 in 1997 was a vision of broken beauty inspired by Japan. Things that feel that they are perfect tend to feel less interesting to me. I like mistakes, I like failure, and I like things that don’t work.
When you were asked to work on the Pirelli calendar in 2004, was the concept of beauty important to you when defining the concept? The calendar has a tradition founded largely on a more commercial, sexual view of beauty.
Pirelli had approached me three or four times but I’d always said no because when I started out, the one thing I really hated was the 1970s vision of ‘photographer as Lothario’, you know, shagging the models etcetera, which actually had been the truth as I can ascertain from talking to people who were there at the time.
Society, I’d imagine, was different then because it was pre-AIDS. When you look back at fashion photography from that era, there is an incredible freedom and sexual liberation there. A liberation that erases beauty from the conversation I think.
It was much more free in terms of sexuality for sure. I went into the fashion world disliking the idea of photographers just taking pictures to get girls into bed and I knew I didn’t want to do that. If you look at the work of Bailey, Newton, Bourdin, sexuality was rampant in their work and I just had no interest in that. I remember being in Paris as a young photographer and having a real argument with another photographer who told me he wanted to be like Helmut Newton!
So what was your vision?
Where I found my feet was through Simon Foxton. He had a particular aesthetic vision based primarily on his love of African men. His fascination with black culture became fascinating to me and at the same time, I began working with Marc Ascoli doing the Yohji catalogues and the more Japanese aesthetic came into my mind. At the time I was blown away by Yohji’s message to women, which was that fashion should be about their soul and not how big their tits were. It was everything I felt. My aesthetic began to be informed by the merging of these two worlds; Simon’s exploration of black culture and gay 80s London with performers like Leigh Bowery and then on the opposite side I was interested in the Japanese vision of fashion as an intellectual statement.
You ended up doing the calendar didn’t you?
Yes. I spoke to Peter Saville, who has always been a friend and someone I could talk things through with. He suggested that I look at it from somebody else’s point of view. So I began to think about shooting it from a more female perspective. I thought I would ask women to tell me about their sexual fantasies…
And so the images used each month were constructed from these conversations with women? You constructed narratives based on their most intimate sexual fantasies.
Well for a start I knew I didn’t want to represent my own sexuality and it I was much more at ease with doing other people’s! I contacted 20 women and just asked if they would speak to me and most of them said yes. I had a series of interesting conversations with exciting women from Catherine Deneuve to Tracy Emin and Bjork and that made me feel comfortable enough to do the calendar in artistic terms.
That sounds intense!
It was very hard because, if you talk to women about sex, they say things that are very difficult to visualise and to represent. It was a challenge to put them onto paper without giving the client too much excuse to reject it. There had to be a lot of suggestion in the images.
Did you record the conversations with the women? I bet they would have made a great post on SHOWstudio!
No! I didn’t, as it was all totally confidential, but I was thinking about it a lot of the time.
I wanted to ask you if you watched reality TV. The reason I ask is because when you started SHOWstudio, its aim was to expose the truth and the theatre behind fashion and, in a way, reality TV has largely constructed people’s perceptions on what is beautiful and what men and women should look like. Fashion magazines and brands are obsessed with reality too with their constant focus on street style and lifestyle. People’s aspirations seem very low. The ‘reality’ the industry wanted to share, has become a parody of itself.
People try to get me to watch reality TV every so often but I’ve never found much fascination in it. It came around in the 2000s but I started working on SHOWstudio in 1997. It took a couple of years and during that time there wasn’t really this current sea of reality television. There was no sign of Big Brother or any of that and really my desire to do SHOWstudio was to show how incredible images are created. I was interested in the moments that only I could see and it’s never been to dispel myths about the industry. When I would be shooting a Dior campaign with John Galliano for example, there were just so many amazing things happening on the set. No one ever saw what happened in the makeup room or the amount of talented people who would contribute to the final image. All people saw three months later was 1/125th of a second of a vision that was created. I didn’t mind that at all but I really felt that all this other stuff I had just lived through needed to be shared! Seeing a girl who has been sitting underneath a rain machine for five days, wearing sodden Dior Couture, sobbing because she cannot stand it anymore was a really powerful image. It was an image I wanted other people to see too.
Have you ever had to convince someone that they are beautiful? I’d imagine that you have to try and explain your vision to a client who may not understand it quite often.
That happens regularly. The people you see in front of the camera the most are often the most insecure I think. They are there because they’re requesting a reassurance that they are beautiful and that they are loved and important. People you think are the most confident and beautiful are the least in my experience. A lot of what I do is taking to people and telling them they look great. In the early nineties I worked for a large brand that is today a huge one. The director of the company at the time had told me to go away and take one of their old perfumes and to create an image to sell this perfume. I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do! So, I thought of this fragrance and thought that quite often the place you notice perfume advertising is in airports, before you are about to board a flight, before you go up into the sky. I thought of creating an image of an angel; a symbol of life and death. I thought that this would be a great aspirational symbol to the woman staring at that poster in the airport.
…I created this vision of an angel with a model that looked like someone from the Renaissance period. She was wearing big white wings made from feathers and it was backlit so she had an aura around her and I remember thinking that you couldn’t get a more angelic vision. I took it into a meeting and was surrounded by a whole team of marketers and business people. Thinking I had done a good job, I put the image down and there was a very sharp intake of breath. The director looked at me fuming and said, ‘why are you putting a photo of a whore in front of me! This is a photo of a Berlin whore from a cabaret!’ And I thought, WOW. You are seeing a whore and I am seeing an angel.
I guess at that moment you realised there was not going to be much point in trying to convince them otherwise.
Exactly! A lot of the time as a photographer or image-maker, your vision of beauty is going to be opposed but at the end of the day, the client is paying you to deliver a specific vision. When I work on a cosmetics campaign and people say, ‘can we retouch this cheekbone so it’s the same as the other one’ or ‘can we make this nostril more symmetrical with the other’, I always say that this isn’t making the image or the person more beautiful, it’s just making it more symmetrical. I don’t have any issues with the postproduction stage of an image, similarly to how I feel about plastic surgery, but we can do things that could be so much more impactful. What I mind is how often there is no artistic credibility to these things. What you’re left with is this blandness.
Doesn’t it seem that people who have no artistic awareness are making the decisions on how fashion should be communicated? Like the surgeons you spoke of earlier, marketers are telling us what is beautiful.
Committees of people who have no artistic understanding whatsoever, yes, largely construct the images we’re presented with. Those changes in postproduction I mentioned aren’t being made to make the images more beautiful, they’re done to sell more product and, in turn, to make more money. Being able to shift a million more pots of face cream should not be the reason why we create images of beauty.