Nick Knight, Director of SHOWstudio.com, is among the world’s most influential and visionary photographers. As a fashion photographer, he has consistently challenged conventional notions... [Read More]
Alex Fury: Where did the idea for a 'Transgender' fashion story originally come from?
Nick Knight: It came from New Orleans originally, the idea of the different family structures in New Orleans. There's a lot of conventional use of gender terminology, like saying 'you're my sister' or 'you're my daughter', applied to people who clearly - biologically - weren't that sex. So there's an interesting 're-genderising' of the black communities in New Orleans. I was also inspired by the Sissy Bounce dance scene, and the fact you have very openly gay and very openly cross-gender DJs in what was previously a very homophobic scene. It makes the whole thing feel much more exciting for people of any persuasion.
I think it's very important to give people visions of the future. They need things to aspire to that aren't just rooted in the past, and an idea of a complete re-defining of gender-based roles is always exciting. If offers you possibilities that you didn't previously have in a very conventional form of gender. And of course, from that becomes the possibility for an image-maker like myself to create much more fantastic visions that play on a whole bunch of different aesthetics and reference very different things both from the past and from the future.
Alex Fury: Can you talk a little more about those references?
Nick Knight: I'm 52, I grew up in the 1970s, so the original cross gender for me was David Bowie in Stevenage in 1973 - then later on Roxy Music and the New York Dolls, but the first bit of cross-genderism that I came across was David Bowie. If you want my first cultural references, actually taking it a bit earlier, is Marc Bolan and T. Rex. I remember as a very young teenager, probably not even a teenager, looking at Marc Bolan album covers and desperately trying to draw them. He proposed a kind of cross-genderism, and funnily enough so did bands like The Sweet. You had bands like The Sweet and Slade on Top Of The Pops wearing make-up but at the same time there was a lot of 'lad-iness' to them: these aggressive British lads all of a sudden with blue eyeshadow and bleached feather cuts, wearing tinsel and satin loon pants. Out of that came the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music, but the earlier stuff was Marc Bolan - that was my earliest influence.
Alex Fury: It's interesting thinking about that coming out of Skinhead - which was quite tough and hard. And this was about making the men look soft.
Nick Knight: Part of the thing with Skinhead and the way it turned and embraced glam rock to a certain degree, was a kind of 'What the fuck are you looking at? I've got bleached hair and make-up on, but I'm going to punch your head in'. There was a provocative thing - these very hard boys suddenly wearing make-up or adopting very flamboyant, feminine twists to what they were wearing. Spraying your Doc Martens silver - not particularly feminine, but at the time it was a long long way from the proletariat dressing of the early Skinheads. There was that provocative element in it, and a show-off element of youth. It was a way of being a bit more outrageous, which took its real full swing in the late 1970s as Punk. It was an interesting time and it manifests itself in every culture all the way through, picked up by Grace Jones in Paris in the late 1970s and people like Jean-Paul Goude creating an image of her which was very androgynous and very tough - and very chic. You also got Amanda Lear - it's been picked up in every generation. Its like Riccardo Tisci and Lea T. today: there's always been a fascination for men who are women and women who are men. Whether it's Bourdin or Newton or any image maker, there's always been a fascination. The transgenderism I was interested in specifically was fuelled by the Sissy Bounce dance scene in New Orleans, that's what got me excited about doing something.
Alex Fury: When did you first become aware of Mel Odom's work?
Nick Knight: I first came across Mel's work in the mid 1990s, when a colleague showed me his book, and I loved his illustrations immediately. For me, it fitted in with the work of artists like Paul Wunderlich and Mati Klarwein that I knew from the seventies. I liked the idea of the Surrealist illustration aspect. I also liked that it looked like an illustration equivalent of a Robert Mapplethorpe picture, that early eighties New York aesthetic that I remember from when I was a photographer first starting out.
Alex Fury: And how did Mel Odom's work inspire these ideas of Transgender that you were developing for the editorial?
Nick Knight: This shoot was about going beyond androgyny. I think the models involved have pushed the idea of Transgender up a couple of notches - into a bold, definitive statement. Mel's work fitted because of its intense beauty. I like the immediacy of it - it's not subtle, just very intensely beauty. There's a boldness to it too. On this shoot, I was working with people like Alex Box and Nicola Formichetti, who themselves work with Gareth and Gaga - there's nothing subtle and nothing shy about what they do! It's not afraid, it's celebratory - there's no irony or sarcasm, and it's not apologetic. That's what I loved about Mel's work. It's total, one hundred percent indulgence, a fantasy. And you get sucked into it.
Alex Fury: Looking at the final imagery, it's could be read as quite hard and confrontational.
Nick Knight: But I don't think it's hard, and not necessarily confrontational, more than just upfront. It's now 2011, a long way from 1970. We've culturally been through such a lot, and there's been so much turmoil and enormous social changes have happened in the last fifty years. And now, with the advances in cosmetic surgery, the use of prosthetics, there's the ability, medically, to go further.
Alex Fury: The idea of fashioning your body as well as clothing it - the idea of changing your body to the way you want to look.
Nick Knight: I'm in no way against cosmetic surgery, except that most people use it in a very very boring way. Cosmetic surgery used in an interesting and creative way I'm much more excited by. I've said for a long time that people's faces should not be controlled by surgeons or doctors, because I know from my own studies that they're not the most wildly artistic bunch! It should really have been Alexander McQueen doing your cosmetic surgery. I think there's a possibility to be much more advanced medically with the state of your body, so people can quite easily have breasts and a penis. And I think there's a desire to take it to that level.
Alex Fury: Fashion is always a contrast to what's gone before - this is a big change from the coy asexuality of nineties androgyny.
Nick Knight: It's very much upfront. It's very direct, a very big, bold statement. It has nothing to do with the slightly dull androgyny of the nineties: a little bit hinted at, subtle, a bit dour and dull. This is a big flamboyant explosion of sexuality and gender image. It's that, on steroids! For the people who are involved in it, there's a real pride to what they're doing. Attitudes to people's sexuality have to some degree opened up somewhat since the 1970s - but I still don't think society is particularly tolerant to difference. I still don't think society is particularly tolerant to homosexuals. I think in the community that you and I live in we are, but I don't think in broader society. A lot of culture is still based on fear of any blurring of who you are or what you are.
Alex Fury: This shoot and the idea of transgender stands in contrast to the homogenisation of image. There's this real play with gender and the idea that gender is a construct, that gender is flexible - as opposed to a man looking one way and a woman looking another way, which is what fashion tends to pump out.
Nick Knight: I think one can assume cross-genderism and transgenderism has been happening in every society all the way through. People definitely need to find ways of expressing themselves. We are all not the same and that eventually comes through. Any sort of doctrine or any accepted norm will therefore be broken because people are not the same, everybody is inherently different. Most people are not sure of their own sexuality, or the parameters of their own sexuality, and therefore will experiment with it if they're allowed to, or if they're encouraged to. The problem with a lot of our culture is that it doesn't encourage that kind of experimentation. It tends to repress it. I think the interesting thing with the 'New Transgenderism' if you want to call it something, is that it is so upfront. It's saying 'you can be this way, experiment, push, redefine' it's very much about that, rather than subvert. It is stating its case very boldly and very clearly.
Extracts from this interview were originally published in 'Gender Blending', The Independent, 14 February 2011