Interview: Nick Knight

by Alice Rawsthorn .

Since adolescence, I would fall in love with different women because of their faces before I discovered what sort of body they had. Physicality was never a thing. When I'm working with models, I never think 'Oh, she's so beautiful.'

So, you're Nick Knight. You're in a New York photographic studio to which a couple of dozen of the most famous models of the last fifty years have been summoned to be shot by you for British Vogue. There's Gisele, Audrey Marnay and Maggie Rizer; Penelope Tree, Twiggy and Patti Boyd; Naomi, Kate and Claudia; Jerry Hall, Marie Helvin and Patti Hansen; Dorian Leigh Parker, Carmen and Victoire Doutreleau; Anjelica Houston, Charlotte Rampling and Marisa Berenson; and on and on. They've been prepped by the stylists and they've posed for their portraits but, before they leave, what else would you ask them to do?

Don't forget, you're Nick Knight, so you'll ask them all to do two things. One is to kiss a piece of glass. (Now, we're not even going to try to go into why right now, but it's something that Knight has been asking models to do at the end of his sessions for years. And, in case, you're wondering, the glass goes straight into his archive afterwards.) Then you'll ask them to stand in front of a video camera, say their name and stay there for two minutes as the stars of a sort of John'n'Yoko-meet-Warhol home video that anyone who wants to can now see on SHOWstudio.

Alice Rawsthorn: Why?

Nick Knight: Because, once I realised that I could get access to these people - the great models of the 20th century - I thought, well, this is a unique opportunity and we should get as much out of them as we can. Some of the great models have already gone - Dovima, Lisa Fonssagrives Penn, the Beaton ones, the Steichen ones, a whole bunch of them - and a lot of the women in the Vogue shoot are in their sixties or older. So, I knew that I wouldn't be able to do a project like this again.

Alice Rawsthorn: How did you approach the Vogue shoot? 
Nick Knight: Originally, I wanted to photograph them all in the nude, but that idea went out of the window very quickly. It's hard enough to persuade people to come out of retirement in Santa Barbara, without telling them that they're going to be photographed naked in their sixties. I was interested in trying to find out whether there was some sort of body shape that could be discerned from the sort of woman people want to photograph: whether there was a distinctive physiology or a discernible, almost coherent range of body shapes? And then I thought: "Well, if they're not going to want to do it, let's look at their faces and see if there's anything there." But we ended up shooting them full-length.

Alice Rawsthorn: By doing that, you seem to have depersonalised the models.

Nick Knight: When you're working that far away from somebody, it is a bit depersonalising. First of all I thought: "Let's take away all the fashion stuff - take off the make-up, let their hair down. Let's show them as women rather than as models." Then I thought: "Well, they are models, so let's show them as models." It seemed more correct. If you said, "Well, okay, let's do you as real people," it was almost being rude about what they did as a profession. That's why I took them back to what I think of as the archetypal fashion space - the white cyclorama - that's been around since the beginning, as opposed to doing them in locations, because it reconfirmed the fact that they're models. Once you put them in that space, there are certain tricks that fashion photographers use in terms of the angling of the camera. You place it very, very low down, so the lens is knee or ankle-height, and it elongates the body. The head becomes smaller, the body longer and the legs get very, very long: which is how fashion illustrations work.

Alice Rawsthorn: The models look very different in the film. Instead of being objectified and glamourised, you're much more aware of them as individuals, particularly because of the difference in their ages. The younger models appear more beautiful in the film than the Vogue stills, but the reverse is true of the older ones.

Nick Knight: One of the reasons we did the Vogue thing like that was to beautify the models with the angling of the shot and the way we printed. But film is a new medium for me. I've always videoed everything I do in the studio. When people come in, there's a video camera playing on a tripod. You tell everybody it's playing and it plays all the way through the day. I always have done that, so I've got this huge archive of stuff. But I'd never, or hardly ever stood in front of a model with a camera - because it is very different. One of the things I was interested in was: what would happen if you take away the structure and guidelines from a fashion shoot? Normally, when you shoot a model, there's a certain sort of rhythm that imposes itself. The old cliché of the rhythm of the flash going off, the camera clicking, that sort of thing. Even in the way I work with a big plate camera.

Alice Rawsthorn: You'd have thought that by removing that rhythm and abdicating control of the shoot, you'd be empowering the models, but the opposite seems to have happened. They seem to have gone into the studio expecting to be directed by you, the photographer, only to be told: "You've got two minutes to stand in front of the camera without direction." Mostly, they seemed irritated, or flummoxed.

Nick Knight: Exactly. In a fashion shoot, you direct, you coerce, you manipulate, you do all those sorts of things. It's a very controlling environment. This came through a lot from the older models. Dorian Leigh Parker says: "Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?" Afterwards, she talked a lot about the photographers she used to work with and seemed to be saying that she resented the control they had over her. That's something that came up again and again.

Alice Rawsthorn: So, why did they seem so diffident when that control was taken away? Most of them looked vulnerable or awkward? The most empowered - it seemed to me - were Audrey Marnay, Alek Wek and Penelope Tree, who kind of rebelled against the process by striking very still poses and holding them for two minutes, as if they were withdrawing from the situation.

Nick Knight: It was a strange thing to do and an intensely embarassing thing to do. I'm quite a shy person in any case, and meeting someone who is very well known or very beautiful is a part of my job that I find very difficult. You meet an Avedon model, or a Newton model - these are people I've seen in pictures that are references I've lived with for 25 years - and then suggest something that clearly isn't very flattering. I'd ask them to look at the camera, then take one step aside with a stopwatch, so you see a lot of the models' eyes flickering to the side. Usually, I'd have my back turned to them, or keep my eyes down looking at the stopwatch. To be honest, I felt increasingly embarassed as we went on, but I thought it was a worthy document.

Alice Rawsthorn: Why worthy? You've admitted that you felt embarassed doing it?

Nick Knight: It was an experiment. Film isn't my medium, so I didn't really know what I was going to get. I know I felt embarassed and it's clear, looking at the tapes, that some of the sitters felt bad too. It takes away some of the protections they put up, I'm not giving direction so they have to come up with their own. The angle of the camera is straight on. There aren't any lighting effects. It's more revealing of the individual than most of my still photographs. It has that critical edge.

Alice Rawsthorn: Aren't you interested in being revelatory in still photography?

Nick Knight: No. I don't believe in photography as a truth-telling medium, because I know how to work it. I feel the more skilled the operator: the more you see of them and the less of the person in front of the camera. The closest I came to realistic photography was in a book, skinheads, that I did at college. After that, I didn't feel very fulfilled and pursued a less realistic, so-called manipulative approach. I can't do that with film, partly because I don't have a grasp of it and partly because I don't want to emulate what I do in stills. There's no point.

Alice Rawsthorn: Did you find that working in a new medium freed you up? Would you have felt able to abdicate control of the session as a stills photographer?

Nick Knight: No, because it's something I'm supposed to do at a certain level. A lot of fear goes into my days when I take photographs. You have to produce an image of people who are famous, very well known, very beautiful, all those sorts of things, and they've been in front of some of the greatest photographers. So, you feel slightly on trial to produce an image that they'll like. It is nerve wracking. The higher you set the bar, the more you try to get better, the harder it becomes, because you can't rely on things you've done in the past, so you strip away.

Alice Rawsthorn: Do you also feel a responsibility to reveal something about them that hasn't been revealed before?

Nick Knight: No, I'm not interested in that. For a long time, I didn't really want to consider the model's character, her background, what she had to express. I wanted to use them to get over a series of aesthetic things - colour of eyes, colour of skin, gemoetry, compositional aspects - so a lot of my work wasn't about them as people. But, of course, they are people, they do react, and they do force their way into your photographs. There's always a kind of struggle going on in my work because the person's trying to push their character through, and I'm trying to get what I want from it.

Alice Rawsthorn: You appear in the film too. How did you feel standing in front of the camera?

Nick Knight: Well, I'm too used to it. It's my camera. I know what the project's about, and I know the tricks to get away with it.

Alice Rawsthorn: So, you carried a prop - a glass of water - you were the only person who did.

Nick Knight: That was a mistake, I didn't know I was doing it.

Alice Rawsthorn: Which performance did you feel happiest with, or least embarassed by?

Nick Knight: Some of the people I photographed had gone on to become actresses. Charlotte Rampling's in there, Angelica Houston's there, Marisa Berenson's there. I should imagine that they coped with it better. The ones who seemed not to be able to cope were the ones that tried to model their way through it by striking an attitude they'd normally do in front of the camera. The one who surprised me, that I liked best, was Carmen, because she turned the idea of having to stand in front of a video camera into a platform to talk about breast cancer. I thought: "Good on you."

Alice Rawsthorn: It was genuinely shocking. You see this very elegant, elderly lady pull down her dress, whip her tit out - you squirm, and then despise yourself for squirming.

Nick Knight: It was a very good move. To be honest, I think she turned the whole thing around. But it sounds like I was out there to encourage that. I wasn't.

Alice Rawsthorn: You've talked about your misgivings with the film, are you surprised by the strength of your ambivalence?

Nick Knight: Absolutely. I think it's an interesting project, but I don't know how I feel about it morally. I don't know if I feel at ease with it, but that's true of skinheads and other work I've done. You're not always completely convinced, or know how to react. Producing work is very easy, but some pieces are a little more difficult to come to terms with. I'm still quite close to this piece and it's always hard to judge work when you're so involved. Normally, you have to step back, see it come out, and get some distance before you know whether you feel okay with it. I'm not sure about that yet with More Beautiful Women. I'm interested in carrying on with the project, so that would indicate that I haven't got it out of my system.

Alice Rawsthorn: Why did you call it More Beautiful Women?

Nick Knight: It was a play on Andy Warhol's film, Beautiful Women. It's very much Peter's influence. Peter (Saville, co-curator of SHOWstudio) has got a big Warhol thing and he told me about this film, which I haven't actually seen, where Warhol shot the twelve most beautiful women of the era. It's a nod and a wink to that. And it's a nice title. Here you have more beautiful women, and they are considered to be the more beautiful women.

Alice Rawsthorn: One of the things you're best known for as a fashion photographer is questioning the type of women who are presented as "beautiful" by fashion magazines, in your (British) Vogue session with larger models, for instance. Yet almost all the women in this shoot - except for the ones who've plumpened out in later life - are stereotypically slender.

Nick Knight: I got a bit fed up with that. I photographed Sara Morrison (the voluptuous model in the first Vogue shoot) and, sadly, Vogue rejected her potrait. I was very upset about that, because I felt I'd let Sara down. Vogue argued that she hadn't had an advertising campaign and that the session with me was her only fashion story. We argued long and hard; but, at the end of the day, it's not my magazine.

Alice Rawsthorn: Why this preoccupation with size? Why not ethnicity? Whatever?

Nick Knight: Partly, because I married a woman who is a more curvy shape.

Alice Rawsthorn: So, that shape appeals to you?

Nick Knight: It wasn't that actually. I didn't fall in love with Charlotte (his wife) because of the way she looked. "Oh my perfect curvy woman." I fell in love with Charlotte - period - and she happened to have that body shape. Having spent 15 years of my life with her, you certainly appreciate the sexual side of that shape of woman, and also it seems enormously unfair. I don't want to be seen as a ranting, moralising photogapher but there are certain things that make you think.

Nick Knight: 'For Christ's sake...' We have this strange perception of women forced upon us by the fashion industry, and I find it quite scary that a lot of stuff going out doesn't address it. We're all different shapes and sizes, and we all fall in love with each other. There seems to be this mistaken belief that you fall in love with people, or are attracted to them, because of their physicality, which I've never found. I don't look at women in that way, and never have done. I don't thnk: 'Oh, look at the legs on her.' Or whatever. I look at the face, and always have done. Since adolescence, I would fall in love with different women because of their faces before I discovered what sort of body they had. Physicality was never a thing. When I'm working with models, I never think 'Oh, she's so beautiful.'

Alice Rawsthorn: You don't portray women in an overtly sexual way, as some photographers do.

Nick Knight: I've always had a fear of that, because it seemed so corny. In the '70s, when I started, it was worse than corny, beyond that 'Confessions Of...' thing. It was just a joke that photography was a seedy way to get into a girl's pants. So, I've always had a sort of moralistic approach to it. And, it's a boring subject, I don't want to talk about my sexuality. If people want to know about it they can go up and ask me, but I really don't think it's of any great interest to anybody. It's an area where we're all completely confused and mixed-up, so I don't feel prepared to talk about it. I don't profess to understand my sexuality or to be in control of it. I think a lot of gay photographers find it useful as an aggressive tool. But I'm not gay, so it doesn't feel rebellious to talk about it - just boring.

Alice Rawsthorn: When the models arrived in the studio for the Vogue session and you first saw them, did you see the women themselves, or the ghosts of portraits taken by photographers you admire?

Nick Knight: I did see ghosts, but not in a sad way, because I also saw why so many of those pictures were so great. You realise that a lot of it came from the girls. But I saw the ghosts of great portraits, and ghosts of photographers I admired. It was a shocking sort of re-education.

Alice Rawsthorn: Why?

Nick Knight: Because many of the models were ex-lovers of the photographers and expressed a whole range of emotions. Some of the older women were actually very rampant in their descriptions of the people they worked with, and it wasn't what I expected. Also, with the older models, you kind of think 'Oh, they must have all been so elegant in those days.'Not at all. It was all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll - even pre-rock'n'roll. There was a hell of a party going on. The stories the women delivered on set were quite amazing. There's a lot of knowledge there that hasn't come across. One thing I'd like to do to take this project further is to interview them.

Alice Rawsthorn: Earlier, you said that one of your objectives for the Vogue shoot was to identify common characteristics among women who'd inspired great photographers? Did you?

Nick Knight: When I met them, what I felt was that I could understand exactly why Avedon, Beaton, Bailey, whoever had wanted to photograph them. I guess that was what I was looking for. It wasn't anything to do with beauty or their physicality, but something came across. I felt very aware of why Bill King did so many pictures of Janice Dickinson, for example, because of her energy.

Alice Rawsthorn: Was that 'something' more than the acquired poise of having become accustomed to being photographed?

Nick Knight: That's certainly a part of it. They knew how to work in front of a camera: which side to turn, how to move and what it means when the lens is low. But there's more to it than that. It's a personality thing mixed with something I can't place which, I guess, is the whole idea of beauty. These people weren't just anyone. They delivered some form of attraction. There was something that made you, as a photographer, feel compelled to spend time working with them.

Alice Rawsthorn is director of the Design Museum in London.