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Nick Knight: “I commit with my heart and soul”


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Nick Knight
Photo by Jon Emmony
Short Profile

Name: Nick Knight
DOB: 1958
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Photographer, filmmaker

Mr. Knight, why do you take photographs?

I express my life through my photography. I use it as a way of following my desires. I’m interested in lots of things and photography has allowed me to walk up to anybody and say, “Hi, can I take your photograph?” and therefore, “Can I become part of your life,” or “Can you become part of my life?” Photography has gotten me everywhere from photographing the last closure of the last coal mine in Britain to photographing the Queen of England. It allows you to go from the middle of a bar fight to the corridors of Buckingham Palace. I used to borrow the family camera back in the seventies, and I’d take it out with me on a Saturday night.

To photograph what?

I’d see people I liked the look of and I’d just photograph them. These were all just encounters with regular human beings and yet they were all vastly exciting — and even today, I quite often find myself going up to people on the street and saying, “Excuse me, can I take your photograph?”

“These are people who are profoundly interesting people to work with. They’re all fascinating for me; otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”

How are those early experiences different than the ones you have today?

It doesn’t change! You’re still approaching somebody who you haven’t met before. It’s still a human relationship. It’s no different; the picture I take tomorrow will be just as terrifying as the first picture I ever took. You don’t know how you’re going to do it and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It’s always hard. I guess what I’m trying to fight a bit against in the question you’re putting to me is that it’s different when I used to be young and work and now it’s different because I’m older and more well-known. It makes no difference at all. I still have to find something interesting within them that they will find exciting and I will find exciting.

Jil Sander, 1992
Jil Sander, 1992 © Nick Knight

Do those things remain just as interesting to you if the encounter is arranged, like on a fashion shoot?

Yes, of course, it’s not always that you use it to go up to strangers. But working with someone on a photograph is a two-way thing, it’s give and take like any relationship. You have relationships with people that care about you and you care about them. These are people who are profoundly interesting people to work with. They’re all fascinating for me; otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I tend to have a few very long lasting professional relationships in my life. I worked for Alexander McQueen for probably 15, 20 years. I worked intensely with John Galliano, with Yohji Yamamoto…

Those relationships have to be pretty special if they last over two decades.

Emotionally, they are huge relationships to have, so you don’t have that much space in your life for many other relationships. The types of relationships that I do find myself in, I commit to very seriously, with my heart and soul.

Is it a challenge to balance your point of view with those of a designer like John Galliano or Yohji Yamamoto? 

No. If you’re collaborating with a great mind like Yohji or Galliano or Gareth Pugh or Rei Kawakubo or any of the great fashion minds out there, you’re not in conflict with them. You are maybe in awe of them but it’s a relationship. When you meet a partner, you don’t go into it to fight what they believe in. You go into a relationship because you’re excited by them, you find them attractive, all those positive things. It’s a collaboration.

So if you’re not excited by something, you aren’t going to be able to turn it into a beautiful image?

I’ve always shunned the idea of doing work that you’re not passionate about. If you want to make the most money, just accept everything that comes along. But I want to make the best pictures, not the most money. So, working with designers or models or musicians, those are all situations where I work slightly differently but the point is still the same: it gives me a raison d’être, it gives me a reason to be taking a picture. Photography is a misunderstood medium. People presume it’s about capturing something you see, but of course, it’s not: it’s about creating something you can’t see. I don’t walk into situations and capture something I’m seeing. I go into situations and try and create something I desire to see — except for it doesn’t exist.

What do you mean?

I really question this idea of photography as the bringer of truth. It’s completely erroneous and not at all how I think photography is. We all experience reality but we’re not really interested in it. We’re interested in things that go beyond that. I don’t know why anyone would quest reality in their photographs.

“If you want reality, just go and stand there. You’ll see it. It’s there, it’s all around us.”

What are you questing with your work?

Well, I’m questing the things that I don’t understand, that I don’t see, that don’t exist. Photographers are artists who express their feelings just as much as a painter expresses his or her feelings. The finest and best photographers are the ones that show us what we cannot see: the more skilled the photographer, the more able they are to manipulate and show us things and make us feel things we weren’t feeling before. If you want reality, just go and stand there. You’ll see it. It’s there, it’s all around us.

But what about your Skinheads project — do you not consider that a documentation of the reality that was around you in the eighties? 

No, absolutely not. It was about my opinions, my sexual desires, my social desires, my fears, my self-doubt and my confidence. It wasn’t a quest to tell you what the East End looked like in 1980.

Even though it did accomplish that.

Yes and no. I started photographing them and then I became part of the their scene. But my reason to be there was because I was a photographer. I was showing you how I felt skinheads were and how I felt they looked and what it feels like to be in the middle of a pub fight. It was an idea to try and make you experience the thrill and the sensation or the fear or the lust or whatever it was that I was feeling. Our emotions are incredibly charged by the specific time: what’s happened and what’s about to happen. If you take a photograph of that moment, for starters, it’s a decision of what to leave in and what to lose.

Would you say that every decision you make as a photographer is a manipulation in some way?

Well, think of it this way, if I’m 6’3” and I look down at you holding a camera to my face, I will make you look shorter and more compressed. If I go down on my knees and look up to you using the same camera, you will look taller and more elongated. Which is the real version of you?

Neither.

Exactly! Reality doesn’t even come into it. What you’re looking for is how I represent you or how you feel you want to be represented. You can take one head from one body and legs from another body, and of course, we all do that! Most contemporary image-makers use the best bits that they can do, push and pull and everything else because the idea is to get a great photograph, a great image. So, you know, yes, I do get things like, “Oh, you retouched your work there,” or “That’s manipulating your work!” But I’m manipulating my work as much with whatever lens I decide to screw on the front of my camera or what lighting I use or what paper I print a photograph on. All of those things help to tell the story I want to tell.