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Basic Instinct

How a conceptial trio came together to create

by Penny Martin .

When creatives talk of 'instinct', it is rarely a prophetic vision of the future that they refer to, but a level of sensitivity to the network of people that surrounds them and trust in their tastes and ideas.

In fashion, more than any other creative industry, it is nigh on impossible to get the key players to deconstruct their working processes. Sure, they can easily identify influential aesthetic trends of past periods more often than not summarised under evocative headings: 'very Bourdin', 'so Belle Epoque' or 'early Hoxton'. But ask them to identify exactly what led them to adopt these elements into their stylistic approach and they'll opt for that hoary old cop-out: instinct.

Probe a bit further and you'll find that rather than possessing some transcendental level of higher consciousness, most accomplished fashion image-makers have a failsafe system of initiating ideas that they rely upon for problem solving. From scrapbooks filled with tear-sheets and printed ephemera to rooms full of photo books ripe for appropriation, the judicious use of historical source imagery is bedrock to the production of much contemporary fashion photography.

If only it were so straightforward for Nick Knight's hair and make-up team. 'With Nick more than any other photographer I work with', reflects nail technician Marian Newman working on the set of a British Vogue collections shoot, 'the initial source is only the starting point. It always evolves somewhere completely different'. To make matters more complex, it's not always clear what is required of the hair and make-up team once they reach the set. 'Nick will describe the idea behind the shoot but he won't necessarily know what it needs from each of us. Whereas some photographers want to be involved in every stage, Nick invests trust in us and then leaves us all to get on with it'.

It is indeed this trust that enables the team to meet the challenge of such an intense creative journey: Knight almost always works with the same triumvirate of Newman, make-up artist Val Garland and hair stylist Sam McKnight. Of perhaps more importance is the trust and knowledge of each other that their longstanding working relationship brings. Though each is at the top of their respective fields, mutual respect guards against inappropriate show-boating. 'We try not to fight against each other', says McKnight. 'If the make-up is really "done", I'll intuitively make the hair more natural.'

'It's like a marriage' agrees Garland. 'It takes a long time to be confident enough to know when to hold back or push forward. Today the brief is about product with an emphasis on the season's focus on iridescence and opalescence. Nick wants to see the actual make-up, some sparkle and sheen, so we're experimenting with air-brushing and the skin is kept bare'. It goes without saying that McKnight's reaction is therefore to dress the hair down. 'Though it's styled, big, it's very naïve' he muses, stroking out the distressed tresses of sixteen-year-old Gemma Ward. 'They're young girls and for visible make-up to appear playful, the hair has to be kept youthful'.

In threesomes, though, there is always one who necessarily withdraws and goes their own way. As Garland and McKnight carefully balance their performative activities, Marian Newman quietly perfects fantasy nails in the corner. 'Nails are very important to Nick', she explains, 'in completing the ends of the hands, they extend the gesture and so emphasise expression'. Nevertheless, talons constructed from gold leaf or wire are time-consuming and falling at the end of the preparatory session when everyone is anxious to start the next shot, Newman needs the patience of the team to work her magic. 'In the scheme of things, hair and make-up occupy a greater amount of visual space' she admits, 'so sometimes, I have to fight my corner.'

Though pictures are the start and the end of the image-making process, great photographs depend upon the success of the working relationships that underpin them. When creatives talk of 'instinct', it is rarely a prophetic vision of the future that they refer to, but a level of sensitivity to the network of people that surrounds them and trust in their tastes and ideas. In place of 'instinct', read 'perception'. Observing Garland, McKnight and Newman at work is like watching siblings at play. All different people, certainly, but unconditionally loyal; living and working according to tacit rules and ancient ritual. 'It's like a leap of faith', confides Newman, 'if Nick asked us to fly to Mars with him we would because however it turned out, we know none of us would let him down'.