LONDON, United Kingdom — There are many things you can call Nick Knight: optimist, artist, iconoclast. But the one label he would rather you no longer attached to him is the most obvious one, the one by which the world knows and reveres him. That is, of course: photographer. His mind is fixed so firmly on the future that old world classifications are meaningless to him. And yet, Knight’s forward-thinking radicalism is placed at the service of a very deep and traditional humanism. There isn’t a morsel of dystopia in his vision. He believes passionately in a better world for all, in the primal power of human connection, in the joy of creation. His website SHOWstudio is a temple to human creativity in the Internet Age and has earned Knight another label: high priest, or maybe techno-shaman, opening doors to different realities, transmogrifying perceptions in the most visceral way, and all the while, he himself is the tall, elegant apogee of the Savile Row gentleman.
Tim Blanks sits down with Nick Knight to talk creativity in a connected world.
Tim Blanks: Do you think photography is an ideal medium for making
Nick Knight: Well, I have to preface that by saying I think photography is dead. I think photography stopped years ago and we shouldn’t try and hold back a new medium by defining it with old terms. We can do things that [Eadweard] Muybridge or [Richard] Avedon or [Robert] Mapplethorpe could never do because they are so far outside their particular craft. It’s a very easy set of parameters that join Muybridge to Mapplethorpe, [Eugène] Atget to Avedon. For 150 years they did the same thing. Then something else comes along at the end of the 1980s and you could do things you could never do before. And now we’re much further down the line than that. Now I can take an iPhone and form a sculpture. And some people are still calling it photography.
TB: What do you call it then?
NK: I call it image-making — please could someone get a better description of it — because that’s what I do. Because that can take in sound and movement and 3D, which I think are really part of this new art form. So it’s based on image. That gets away from the thing of truth. Photography has been saddled as the medium of truth for so many years. That’s where its criticism has always been directed, “This photograph has been manipulated.” At the New York Times, you can’t have retouching because retouching is somehow cheating. I’m very pleased that image-making has freed itself from those constraints. It’s a totally new medium and that’s what I think I do.
TB: It’s all magic realism in a way. Storytelling round the digital campfire.
NK: And some of those stories are incredible and they’re probably the same basic stories that have been told around campfires forever because they all have to do with the human condition.
TB: So what was, is and always will be. Is it less about finding new things than about reconnecting with things we’ve lost touch with?
NK: No, we must be creating new things. We must be evolving as a species. We can’t be the same physically and emotionally as we were 500 years ago. We’re no longer chimpanzees, but we’re not where we’re going to be. Although they are the same stories, we’re not exactly the same people.
TB: There are some things you can’t get around — like birth and death — but I guess they’re changing as well.
NK: Certainly, you have image-making that prolongs life and prolongs that emotional connection. If you’ve been in love with somebody you go back to that picture and they come back to you. Historically photography and image-making have done that. And I’m super excited about the idea that we can leave some imprint of ourselves that at some point can be regenerated.
TB: Digital residue.
NK: That doesn’t sound so attractive. We leave something or we create something as we are going through this world, which I don’t think disappears. And maybe it’s something that does prolong life, so we are outside the framework of birth and death.
TB: With the frustration of physical limitations. We perceive three dimensions but physics recognises so many more. We use a small percentage of our brain. Do you see technology becoming our passport to the rest?
NK: Image-wise, I’m looking at a new dimension, and there’s a lot more to come. I think there’s something completely different on the horizon, maybe 10 years away based on the speed with which it’s happening. We need to free ourselves from the past, not because I don’t like the past, but we should focus on the future and then make it happen more quickly. Things like leaving a spiritual imprint on the world or responding to each other in ways we’re not in control of or not knowing how our heart and chest are thinking as much as our head — these are things we need to start thinking about using in the creation of imagery.
TB: James Cameron said he had to wait for the technology to catch up before he could realise “Avatar.” Did you ever feel that with your image-making?
NK: I’ve felt the opposite. I think we need to catch up to technology. Everything I wanted to do is possible, all the tech is out there, and I just needed the time to get to it. I want to make a living sculpture out of real living flesh and that can be done technically — printing out organs and printing out ears and everything else. I just need to get round to doing it. I don’t think technology is lagging behind us. There’s new materials being invented all the time that we haven’t gotten around to using.
TB: Do you think that applies all over?
NK: I’m sure the US military hasn’t lagged at all, but if you look at the arts — and I think fashion is an art like painting or ballet or music — there’s not much uptake in new thinking in general. I think there are lots of retrospectives, or finding values in the past. In North America, in Northern Europe, in Britain, a Protestant culture has largely prevailed. In Britain, the intellectual class still feels very much like that — that there are certain ways you dress. That’s not fashion, those are social codes, which come from things like school uniforms.
TB: Do you think it fades in and out? We have a peacock period then we have a Protestant period, then another peacock period?
NK: I think there’s so much more global expression through the Internet now that it’s very hard to see those transient phases. Before, you had to read about the peacock and the puritan, but now you see someone doing something in Russia and somebody else doing something in Brazil and something else in Phoenix, Arizona and they’re all super-interesting. So I don’t see this broad swathe of similar thought going on. Instead, there are lots of different thoughts for lots of different cultures and lots of different states.
TB: Has the connected world up to this point slightly side-stepped fashion?
NK: All the people I follow excitedly on Instagram are doing exciting things with their image, and other people look at them and want to be like them. I would say that’s fashion and that’s what I’m talking about… There’s no longer a simple global trend. You remember back in the day when the skirts moved half an inch up and it was important that the hemlines changed? Now there are so many places doing so many different things, I don’t think we are all following in the same clear way. The Western media was only focused on the West, so it was much easier to say all ladies will be wearing this because all ladies in the West were. But that didn’t mean ladies in Moscow or Mexico were. Now we’re dealing with a larger part of the world and I don’t just mean geographically, I also mean in terms of the way people have a voice now. Once people had to get a voice by going through the media. Now it’s free access to your audience. So we’re hearing from parts of society that we weren’t before. And a lot of people who have a lot of time on their hands are kids, so they sit in their room and write about their feelings and emotions, which are particularly strong at that age. So you see an outpouring of teenage angst onto the Internet, which is the best place for it in a way.
What looks like technology now is just a tool to get our voice out. I’ve never viewed it as something to love or to fear, it’s just what it is — a means of expression, a skill like learning a different brushstroke or a different chisel for your marble or a different wheel to spin your pot on. I don’t think technology in itself is something that important. I don’t see myself as very technically excited. I never liked cameras particularly. I don’t think I own a camera, so I’ve never really indulged that part of it. In fact, I find it mostly annoying, I have to rein in my anger against the object when I’m working.
TB: One of the most interesting things you’ve said is that it’s never your eye, it’s your desire that dictates the image. That’s the ultimate kind of connectivity.
NK: Yeah but that’s what you’re trying to get through to when you’re photographing someone or getting an image of something in whatever you’re doing. You’re trying to express what you see in your mind and what you feel. It’s not just visual, it’s an emotional connection. It’s something I’m still trying to learn how to do. So if I’m working on trying to create an image of somebody, it’s a strange combination of different senses. It has more to do with hearing than it has to do with vision. I’m hearing a melody when I’m working. When a composition is harmonious, it rings harmoniously. What I’m trying to do is put energy into an object to express what that means to me. If I was taking a portrait of you, I’m trying to see you how I feel you.
TB: Like synesthesia.
NK: Yeah, synesthesia is probably part of it. These are exciting things to talk about because we don’t understand what synesthesia really does. Do I have a synesthetic approach to my work without having a whole lot of scientific tests to work it out? There is a whole range of things that is peripheral information. The idea, for instance, that when someone has a heart transplant, it changes you emotionally, that there is an area in the heart which resembles the brain, that we feel emotion in our stomach. We don’t really understand ourselves, so we’re way off understanding what we are as people. So to narrow it down and to say that photography is about the eyes and what we see, a) feels like it has nothing to do with what I do and b) is also a big misunderstanding of what photography or image-making is about. I think we’re looking towards a future that has to be something closer to who we really are as people, so it has to express more emotionality. I believe very strongly that good things will happen, not bad things. I have a lot of faith we’ll find our way to shape a new vision of our new world in the way that’s beneficial to us. That gets us on to AI, which I’m a great believer in. That’s going to be much more part of where I see us going. If you want to look 20 years into the future, then you’ll be able to show not just what you see or hear, but your emotions, so you create something that’s about who you are.
TB: Everything is so much more fluid than it was — gender, identity. When you cut people loose, what happens?
NK: Lots of exciting things. I spend a lot of my time creating images of people that have very little to do with the reality of what they look like. I’m making my emotional expression of people. And online, you can choose whatever you want to look like. And people are no longer so easy to define as homosexual or heterosexual. I think there has been an awful lot of very strict moral coding going on from the Renaissance until now and that has pushed people into ways of behaving that aren’t really how people are. The things one can do with medicine so you can change physically from a boy to a girl or a girl to a boy are just the beginning of it. We’re at the beginning of something incredible but we’re still trying to define it by old world terms, which is very unhelpful at the moment. It’s like saying, “I’ve got a magazine online.” No you haven’t, you’ve got a website. But in a very big time of transition, people have a natural fear of the future. That’s why they’re trying to grasp onto the past to feel more secure. That’s why they define things in those ways.
TB: The media would have us believe we’re living in an age of fear.
NK: It’s an age of disruption and an age of change, and that’s totally destabilised a lot of cultures and a lot of thinking. And of course it’s not always done very well, and change doesn’t always happen for the best reasons, and emotionally it isn’t always very good because a lot of people get hurt by it and lose their livelihoods and they have to readapt and that’s not always possible.
I think we need more emotionality in our lives. We need to know that we’re at the beginning of something fantastic and not at the end of something — that we’ve just opened the doors and it’s all starting. To some degree my work’s been largely about saying that actually there are much better ways of doing this than the ones you’re seeing. That’s the way SHOWstudio started.
TB: The reassuring thing about the way you celebrate the actual process of creation on SHOWstudio is that it doesn’t demystify the “wow” when you see the finished work. I can see a film of Andy Warhol making his silk screens, and knowing how he did it doesn’t take anything away from the charge I get when I see the picture on a wall.
NK: I still have the same thing. There’s still that total inability to know how you’re going to get that great image, that “wow that looks great” moment. It’s often a very spiritual or metaphysical moment. When you’re trying to get an image, you’re trying to free yourself up, to get rid of a lot of stuff, to do something that is metaphysical, not physical. So, yeah, I have the same sort of thing.
TB: So ultimately the act of creativity defies process because there is an indefinable spark that gives it the magic.
NK: I guess there’s some truth to that unknown bit. So how do you train a photographer to get any better? Whether it’s [Auguste] Rodin or [Francis] Bacon, there is that feeling that they were trying to get to something other than what they saw. It’s about what they felt. They were trying to create something they couldn’t see.
TB: Which suggests creativity in a connected world is actually alchemy. It’s taking things that everybody sees and turning them into something that they’ve never seen before.
NK: Yeah and that’s what I have always said. I want to see things that I’ve never seen before. I want to get away from the seeing because it’s just one part of our senses and it’s not the primary sense I use. Feeling desire is closer to what I think my primary sense is when I’m working. Obviously I have to see the bloody thing otherwise I wouldn’t know where it was, but I don’t see it, I feel it. I push myself to something I want to feel, and I’ll twist and turn and hone the image till I get it. The problem is when you haven’t got it, you’ve got nothing. It isn’t that you can do a half good picture. It’s either rubbish or it’s brilliant. So you’re not always in control of it.
TB: The search for meaning is humankind’s obsessive quest. Can you find it?
NK: Probably not. Part of the reason we work and do things is our searching for why we are here. I don’t approach it in that way because I wouldn’t want to search. It’s sort of a frustration that I can’t actually see the things I want to see yet. I think they’re out there. There are great, great images out there but I haven’t gotten there emotionally yet. I’m quite frustrated by it. I don’t know how to get better. That doesn’t mean I think I’m good. I don’t know how to get better. Do I become more perceptive? Do I become faster, more intuitive? What does one do to become better? Do I expose myself to more, do I expose myself to less? I just don’t know how to get to the thing I want to get to, and there are so many things I want to get to, which is why I find life frustrating in that way. Way too short.
TB: So dissatisfaction is your inspiration?
NK: That doesn’t sound very good. I don’t walk around feeling life is dissatisfying, I just feel it must be able to get better. There must be better images to make. They must be able to get better but I don’t know how. You never see it during a session, you only see afterwards where you didn’t get it right, or you look at the best pictures and wonder why you didn’t see that then. How do you slow yourself down so you can see more? It’s something nobody can teach me. I interview a lot of people, because I want to find out. Because you look at Avedon and think “Fuck that’s good. How could he see that much better?”
TB: Stephen King once said he never feels he’s making anything up, all he’s doing is finding something that’s already out there and tapping into it.
NK: There are so many images out there lying around in the street. I get that they’re all out there already. I see them occasionally and then they’re gone. I am very happy everyone has a camera now. Photography was supposed to be the people’s medium. It bloody well wasn’t. There was one camera in our house and it belonged to my dad and we had to ask to borrow it on Saturday morning. But now everybody can make an image, and everybody can see it.
This article appears in BoF's latest print issue, A Connected World, a special briefing which examines how growing global interconnectivity is impacting the way we create, communicate and consume fashion. To order your copy for delivery anywhere in the world or locate a stockist, visit shop.businessoffashion.com.