Exclusive: Nick Knight Talks to Amanda Harlech About His First Solo Exhibition

Exclusive: Nick Knight Talks to Amanda Harlech About His First Solo Exhibition

'Nick Knight: Image' features 111 works across the mediums of film, painting, sculpture, and photography, illustrating the connection between each.

'Nick Knight: Image' features 111 works across the mediums of film, painting, sculpture, and photography, illustrating the connection between each.

Photography: Nick Knight

Text: Priya Rao

Nick Knight has long been at the forefront of image-making, continually pushing the boundaries of what the very word "image" means via his work with fashion brands, magazines, popular artists (he famously shot Lady Gaga's Born This Way campaign, as well as the cover of Travis Scott's recent album), and his own fashion film website, Showstudio. This is a concept he explores in depth with his first solo exhibition, fittingly titled Nick Knight: Image, opening tomorrow at the Daelim Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Here, on the eve of its unveiling, Knight takes a moment to catch up with with his longtime friend and collaborator, fashion editor Amanda Harlech, to discuss the current cultural revolution, their shared spiritualistic view of art, and temporality and creativity in the digital age.

NICK KNIGHT I'm going to be in Korea this week!

AMANDA HARLECH I know, and I'm absolutely blown over by your exhibition. I hope it's going to travel.

NK So do I, there is some talk.

AH You have to come to London!

NK Actually, people were talking about bringing it to Paris.

AH Well, Paris, London, New York, Germany, everywhere really, Nick!

NK This is my first exhibition! One of my dreams, Amanda, is to project things in space, so maybe this is the one!

AH Why have you been reluctant to exhibit up until this point?

NK As you know from when we've worked together, I like to look forward. I don't really like looking backwards. Doing an exhibition means a lot of retrospective thinking, lots of reconsidering old work where I feel this sort of desire and a rush to move forward, so I've been slightly avoiding it for that reason. It wasn’t high up on my desired list of things to do, to go back and reexamine old work. However, there is always two sides of the story.

AH Well for me, it doesn't seem like a retrospective.

NK You're very astute on that one; it's not. What I wanted to do is to make something where when people went through it, they were excited about the future. It didn't come through seeing a body of work and saying, "Oh that was all fantastic in the past, now what are we going to do," but something that finishes and makes people think, "Actually, the future's really exciting. This is the beginning of something and not the end of something."

AH Exactly!

NK And that takes quite a bit of conceiving, so it's very important for me to feel like I'm actually providing some sort of a motive, which could push people further creatively and generate more possibilities. This isn't about a regurgitation of something that happened 30 or 40 years ago, so I have to get that balance right, but to get that right, I had to make some sense of all the funny decisions one makes in life. Nothing's planned, you just wrap into what you want to do, and then you start to see it making sense when you provide it as a show, which I think it does.

AH It really does! And I feel it's alive—that's exactly what I felt when I was looking at the images. Architects, they build an architectural raft of all the different trajectories from which your eye moves, whether it’s documentary realism, or a portrait, or color compositions, or forensic distillation, or moving images and film. It’s not just an edifice. All of it together spring boards you from everything that you have built.

NK Yes, I wanted to make something that not only makes me feel I've got lots of exciting things to do in the future, which I now have, but also to make other people be freed from dogma and restriction, sort of classification, saying, "Okay, this is photography, this isn't photography, this is film." All those boundaries should be broken down, and we should see ourselves as artists, not just as photographers or sculptors or painters or whatever it is. I think that's something I wanted to do in this exhibition, which is why I called it "Image" rather than “Photographs” or anything else. I'm making a point to say, "I'm not a photographer; I'm an image-maker." Photography is very much about a medium, which has a clear set of parameters around it, and it's all the same car, but what we do, and what you and I have done, has been something very different—it doesn't obey any of those parameters, we've made films and we've made sculptures. There are lots of things that we did within the sort of discipline I used to work in that no longer really is best suited to be described as photography; let's say that's finished and this is a new thing, which takes on the new distribution method of the Internet, and it takes in a whole lot of different disciplines, some of which we don't even know yet because we're still inventing them. So, we must not just hold back this energy that's bubbling away and creating this new vision of this new art by describing it in a way that isn't actually factually correct, but something that sort of restricts it in some way. One gets a certain amount of dogma and reactionary viewpoints, like saying, "Well, this isn't pop art photography because you don't have your iPhone" or, "You've manipulated it by retouching it." Let's not bother to have that debate; let's just celebrate something that's really exciting and it will fall into place artistically into a great sort of history of art and history of communication. Let's not try to restrict our creativity by getting forced into a set of rules that were used to define another medium; it’s not the one I work in.

AH What's so exciting is that you have asked more of the dimensions of image-making than anybody else, and you embrace it as if it's groundbreaking, and it's not groundbreaking. You bring to it an artistic emotional sensibility. It is, I hate the expression in a way, but cutting-edge because you are breaking all the rules. Conservatism becomes sentimental and easily constipated if you just stick within the framework of what has already been done. All great artists are always pushing the frontiers of expression by using whatever tools, whatever means they have at their fingertips to express more deeply or more profoundly what they see and what they feel. Expression is really important to you, but it is married to this extraordinary scientific curiosity that makes you one of the most courageous image-makers of our time.

NK I love that you called me courageous; that feels very flashy. It doesn't feel courageous; it feels necessary. It just has to be done.

AH Well it's quite courageous to do a whole shoot, as we did with the Isabella Blow book, and you shot it on an iPhone—extraordinary images. There was no electricity, there was no way of having it generated, there was no way of doing anything except for responding to what was almost spiritual really in a highly innovative technological way, and that was stunning; I mean mind-blowing!

NK Well, I think it always feels to me that I'm trying to do the things I desire. Desire becomes the main motive for me, it's what I want to see, it's what I want to experience, and it's what I can't see already. If I can't see it, I want to create it. I think the exciting thing is just this feeling of freedom that one has. I don't feel as if I'm forcing myself to do something I don't want to do and it's not compromised. You know I accept very little work because I have to make work that makes me feel excited. That's the only stuff you do really well. If you're accepting a job just for the money, you never feel satisfied by it, you never do your best work. It becomes a rather unpleasant situation where you feel like, “I've just taken money and slightly not done what I should do.” So often, I'm always pushing to do better things because I can see how much further it could go.

AH The constraints of highly commercial work, which you've done extraordinarily—your campaigns—but generally, very commercial work has constraints, the parameters. The very art directed framing is very conventional because that's the only way companies feel safe to push the imagery of their brand, when they're doing something they've done before. You haven't fought them and beaten them down, you've just suggested and offered up stuff, which has been a miracle to see in advertising campaigns. Please, more Nick Knight campaigns!

NK Yeah, I outgrew that. Lots of people I worked with didn't want to take the vision that far. The problem is we're changing from one completely different era to another completely different era. There's this huge change afoot in society and in the arts and everywhere else culturally. It's a rocky road. People get frightened of the future. When things don't make sense, they revert to the past. I think that habit of looking backwards, we see in fashion, and unfortunately we see it manifesting itself throughout the world in culture as well. Different cultures around the world are terrified of where we are now and revert to old ways of being, which of course are redundant, but they're seeking solace, they're seeking something they understand. The future for a lot of people is often frightening because they can't understand it. I think that desire that most people have to aim toward some sort of happy plateau in life is wrong. I think one should celebrate life's ups and downs, and its difficulties and its failures, and we need to celebrate it for its successes, too. I think once someone understands life to be a series of questions and not a series of answers, I think it's much more enjoyable. There's all the shades of grey in between, it's not the black or the white. It's almost funny that we don't understand the in-between, but because people want to simplify, they want to have a simple answer to complex problems, so that's why we talk in soundbites and we talk in short sentences. It's never really explained. Actually, life doesn't need explaining and looking after when you're considering from different points of view. There's never just one way; there's always two sides of the coin, actually, there's a lot more. I think we suffer a bit in the culture of seeking quick answers and looking for simple answers to complex problems rather than celebrating and rejoicing in their complexity. I do think we're going through a weird time at the moment, and I think that reflects ourselves in our business and our world very much in the way that you see advertising being rather safe at the moment. I don't think that's here to stay, I think that's a transitional point. I think we were just talking about the sort of doldrums the fashion industry is in at the moment, which is that there is no obvious wind blowing the ships in one direction.

AH Exactly.

NK So, everything's slightly kind of drifting, but that's changing. Change goes in violent and also very quiet moments. I think we're going through a quiet moment, but there will be a more violent one—but it is a change, and I think that's exciting for young image-makers who want to come to this exhibition. Hopefully, they'll get some of the idea that actually the future is exciting, and the future is being written by them. I speak to students and always say, "The most exciting thing is you. You are the people who, for the next 30, 40, 50 years, are going to paint the world. You're going to make it whatever colors and whatever shapes that you see." It's a great time to be doing this, when you have freedom of access to huge communication platforms with the Internet.  You can speak to people. Before, humans couldn't speak to each other in that way—instantly, globally.

AH Freely, immediately.

NK Before, it was always done through a third party saying, "Well you can say this because I can make some money out of you saying it." But no, that's no longer the case and I think that's a huge change, a very exciting change. The arts and the audience are much closer together now.

AH Well, I think you're a pioneer, but you're also kind of a saint. Youth culture is something that you champion, whether it's through the tribes of skinheads, punks, escapologists, dancers, musicians—every kaleidoscopic prism of our world. It's a huge decision to be able to be confronted by what seems to be chaotic or frightening or dark or painful, and to extract from that that’s truthful or joyous or, even, despairing and frightening. You said you make sense of that in a way that's talking to you, and that for kids out there it is so important, and they shouldn't be afraid of committing what they feel into an image, whether it's a drawing, painting, fashion.

NK You and I both know the joy of working well with people who are artists. You worked very closely with Karl [Lagerfeld] and John [Galliano] and with many people, Amanda. I think what people fail to realize is actually the joy in that, the joy in being able to share in someone else's vision, to look through their eyes. A lot of the things that you've done in your life have been with other people, with John or Karl or whoever, so it's reasonably mad, this exhibition, I put a portrait of you.

AH I know! I'm so touched to see that. It brought back a whole memory of making a little film there and how you allow images to happen. Actually, when I worked with you as a stylist, that being the most generous and creative and inspiring thing an image-maker can do, which is to allow the image to form in front of you, to come to life. It's almost like it's a 3-D scanner, you don't see it immediately and then it comes and then if you'd like, you can sculpt it, and then you paint it, and then you give it it's light of life. It's an extraordinary process; you're not a five-second shot photographer.

NK No, not really. Probably two shots in my whole career would be the first time I would press a shutter on my shoot. One was Björk, that was literally the first shot. I was with Alexander McQueen, and he said, "You took one look at the pose," and back in those days, you shot one and you recharged the camera you shot the Polaroid in. Lee looked at the Polaroid and he said, "I've going home." He left and let me photograph Björk for another five hours, trying to go around and around in circles. He knew that we had got it, which has become one of those joys. It's the joy of looking through other people's eyes. I was able to work with Alexander McQueen; although he was a volatile figure in a sense, he was so sure. He would take a look at a first shot and he would say, “I got it." He was so certain; now that's courageous.

AH That is courageous. I know on shoots, when I've been looking on the monitor, that there have been probably about 30 shots within maybe a couple of hundred where absolutely you got it, but it's where you want to take it next, that's the other thing.

NK There's always a desire to see things that you haven't seen before, so when it's working, the shoot, when the models seems to be absolutely effortlessly pulling all the right poses and doing all the right things you see, you think we’ve got to this speed, we can go faster. The idea that you've overcome this sort of force that was stopping you from flying and now you're flying, you're soaring even higher. Normally the first pictures that come out of the camera aren’t any good, and you see all the problems, but you also see something you didn't expect. You see the clinks in your armor, and it's looking through those, getting in to those that actually start to reveal the real shoot and the real images you imagined. You often have to go through failure. I do rely a lot on having to go through the process of deconstruction before reconstruction. That’s how the first half of the show is; it's deconstructed.

AH Yeah, and that's when you're painting a painting too, it's doesn't go like you think it should go and writing, too—you know it goes in the opposite direction and you have to just let it go and go wrong, then you can bring out what’s truthful. Sometimes we can be so led by what we think is perfect, not perfect as in necessarily beautiful but perfect in a place where we thought we knew where it should go. It's the not knowing, it's going into the discomfort of not knowing that gets really exciting, and that's when it's turbo-rocket midnight fuel time.

NK I'm not really spiritual at all, but I do feel there's a certain spirituality to working. There's something other than the reality in front of you, and I think it's when you feel that you've lost the reality in front of you completely, and this is really corny, but in a different dimension and different sort of way of understanding the world around you.

AH There is this almost mystical, almost holy, sense of complete belief in faith in this coming of something new.

NK It's funny you feel exactly how I feel.

AH It's almost like electricity. It's like you're feeding off another dimension—and that, everybody, is Nick Knight!

NK Well that's why I enjoy working because you do get to a state where things are quite different, whether it's metaphysical or spiritual or whatever else it is, and I wouldn't want to bamboozle people with blurry words or make them think that I'm just trying to say something unimportant by using other big words or nice-sounding words, but I do think there's something that's actually in the air. This is a job that I've done for 40 years; I haven't just started this. Trying to make images for 40 years one after another, you do think about things. I've come to the conclusion that when we work and we're taking and creating images, we actually work with the senses, which are based in the future. We work with things like intuition, perception. We're never really taught how to use our perception or how to use our imitation, we're actually taught slightly against that, to look at the mundane factual world in front of us, not to imagine the world that might be there or imagine what might be coming. As an image-maker, you're working slightly in the future in any case. I don't look at a scene in front of me and want to record it, I'm predicting what's going to come next. When you actually think you're getting closer and the shutter goes down, you don't see. The flash goes off, there's too much light, so your eye can't take it in or the shutter goes black and you don't see it, so we're never actually taking an image of something we see, we're taking an image of something we hope to see. It's predictive. We work in desire, intuition, and complexion, all those things, which are bloomed in the physical world but are done in an emotional context. Art shouldn't be considered like all things are beautiful, healthy, and good. There's also a lot of very unpleasant art. Sometimes it's the expression of the people who have got deeply unpleasant things they want to say, but it does give people a way of speaking, and I think that's important in our world. That's partly why I'm so much in love with the way we can speak now through the Internet. People want to say they're here; they actually want to claim their moment. I think because the Internet allows people to do that that's been part of the reason why I've been so beholden to it for the past 15, 16 years. It does feel democratic, though it's not a political way I'm looking at it, but that’s how people can claim their existence. To say, "I'm on this planet. I'm worth as much as anybody else."

'Nick Knight: Image' is on display at the Daelim Museum in Seoul, South Korea from October 6, 2016—March 26, 2017. Click through the slideshow below for a sampling of the featured works.

Naomi Campbell styled by Jonathan Kaye for V47, 2007.
Credits: All images by Nick Knight.

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