‘No new style will grow out of a preoccupation with art for its own sake. It can only arise from a new interest in subject matter’ - Kenneth Clark, art historian, 1932.
Throughout his career as a fashion image-maker, Nick Knight has worked in pursuit of new forms of beauty. He has endeavoured to shoot individuals who defy societal norms, such as the amputee athlete and model Aimee Mullins who Knight photographed for the cover of a leading fashion magazine guest edited by the late designer Alexander McQueen in 1998. He's drawn to people like Jazzelle Zanaughtti, who alter their appearance to fashion new characters for themselves, exploring identity, gender and self-expression.
Sophie Dahl, Sister Honey and Kim Kardashian are also amongst those whom Knight has focused on in order to broaden the remit of what a 'fashion model' can look like. He frequently recalls how appalled his peers were when he photographed Kardashian in 2012; the then-wife of Ye (previously Kanye West) was viewed as nothing more than an ‘unfashionable’ reality star. In the decade since, Kardashian has covered Vogue US and been dressed by Balenciaga and Thierry Mugler, and beauty standards have broadened thanks to her infamous derrière. ‘I’ve always had that in my work, all the way through there’s been a desire to look at different forms of the human body', says Knight, ahead of revealing a new project featuring the unapologetically feminist designer Michaela Stark.
Knight initially studied to become a doctor, before pivoting to photography in the 1980s with his series Skinheads. He has no formal training in fine art or sculpture, but has always admired the work of painters Fernando Bottero and Tamara de Lempicka, sculptors Brancusi and Hans Belmer, and other artists including Jenny Saville, who have all taken the female nude as their subject matter. ‘They’re very powerful, those women. Being voluptuous is a classic form of beauty, going back throughout time, just take Rubens for instance,’ he explains.
The prevailing cultural construct of the ideal female form was historically a curvaceous one, representing both beauty and wealth. Figures of a voluptuous Venus figure date back to the 25,000 BC period, exemplified by the Venus of Willendorf. The figure's large, drooping breasts are strikingly at odds with the beauty standards upheld by the West today.
Owing to the restrictions placed on Knight by magazine editors who didn’t want to include larger women as part of their publication’s remit, and sample-sized clothes, the image-maker regrets that larger women are of the minority in his archive of work. He was certainly not the only person choosing to photograph bigger women in fashion, however ‘They became fetishised at best…or it was how to look slim while being big, rather than celebrating it’, Knight offers, and says that unfortunately, it still doesn’t feel normal to have bigger sized bodies in a photographic studio. His new work with Stark hopes to change that.
In 2020, Knight invited the Irish designer Sinéad O'Dwyer to showcase her wearable sculptures, which purposefully exaggerate the female form, on SHOWstudio, the online fashion platform Knight founded in 2000. His latest work with Stark is a continuation of the hyperreal celebration of women’s bodies he was drawn to in O’Dwyer’s sculptures, and will be unveiled at an upcoming exhibition at Somerset House for Photo London, who have awarded Knight the Master of Photography Award. However, this new work is not a static image as many would expect, nor a fashion film - the now popular medium which he first spearheaded - but a fashion sculpture.
Created using 3D scanning and printing technology, two sculptures immortalise the 27-year-old Australian designer and artist Stark, and models Dodo Potato and Jade O'Belle, all of whom carefully curate their self-image online. ‘The things people hide, she glorifies’, Knight explains of Stark's work, which he first discovered over two years ago. Stark contorts curvaceous bodies, including her own, using custom-made corsets and garments such as the ‘Skinny Sag Dress’ and ‘Fat Roll Jumpsuit’.
Using their bodies to create live human sculptures, Stark, Dodo Potato and O'Belle worked with Knight in the SHOWstudio space in London to create a series of poses which were then scanned in 3D. Knight and SHOWstudio’s Michael Gossage then worked together to place the scanned bodies into a composition to be printed by the art conservation studio Factum Arte in Madrid. The resulting free-standing frieze and bust make a clear visual play on the compositions of nude women seen throughout art history, presenting a powerful meditation on the conventions of beauty today.
In the smaller of the two sculptures, a life-sized bust of Stark is rendered in alabaster. Having authored her own body and poses in the studio, the sculpture of Stark renders the designer as she contorts her natural form, leaning backwards to create a sharp angle with her lower back, which counteracts the left side of her body where her stomach bulges out from underneath her corset. Her left breast spills out over the top, her right held tightly against her chest, pushed up towards her face which playfully pouts to the viewer.
The alabaster provides a luminous, celestial quality; the material is almost translucent and something which Knight has been waiting for the right time to work with. Exhibited on a plinth, Knight presents Stark’s body as the pinnacle of beauty. ‘There is something in the language of statues which is about permanence. In the language of fashion, it’s transience. I didn’t want this to feel like the next season, it’s gone. Often, as we know from recent history, statues can represent something awful and they need to come down. But a statue can also be a statement of what is beautiful.'
When viewers take a complete walk around the Stark bust, they'll find it has a smooth, flat back to it rather than a continuation of the human form. As the result of the sculpture being taken from the multi-figure composition featured in the frieze, the flat surface and graphic edges depart from the modelled, sculptural form. This is a major clue that this inherently modern work departs from traditional sculpture, created using 3D technology rather than being made exclusively by hand. However, once printed, both of the works were assembled, filed and sanded by Factum Arte craftsmen.
The free-standing frieze is made from stereolithography (SLA), a cheaper material than alabaster, typically used in 3D printing. Here, it has been coated in gesso paint to give it a plaster-like surface. Knight is presenting it at Photo London as a prototype of what's to come in his work; eventually he plans to render the entire work in alabaster, just like the bust, after taking it home with him to study. 'I like the mistake, I like failure. I think it frees you up to be able to go right to the core of the creativity you’re searching for’, Knight explains.
Figures burst out from the double-sided rectangular work, breaking through the remnants of linear edges which reference the boundaries of the flat 2D photograph which Knight has always worked both with and against. In places, the surface mimics a pixelated image. Inverted faces on one side project outwards on the other, as bodies entwine to create an abstract composition of female forms who support one another. A figure on the bottom left of one side leans back on her elbows, the folds in her skin visible. A body bends itself into a neat curve in the centre, supporting the upper half of the composition. Knight poetically refers to these figures as an ‘orbit of women’, leading the viewer's eye across and round the work.
Visitors to Photo London who hope to see Knight's photographs in the flesh will not be disappointed. 15 works have been brought together, including a selection from his catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s, the infamous one-eyed Devon Aoki from 1997, together with his on-going series Roses from my Garden and landscape series. The show has been coordinated by Bex Cassie, associate director of Nick Knight's archive.
Onlookers will discover that Knight's biggest achievement is how he has developed the language of image-making across a broad range of subjects and technologies. His projects over the past 20 years, housed on SHOWstudio, have explored 3D scanning, printing, artificial intelligence and CGI. ‘I like it when you see things you don’t normally see, and often the technical aspect is a way of getting there.’ He goes on to explain that 3D scanning, the main tool used to fashion the work with Stark, is ‘the right language for now, but these things only succeed as much as they’re made available.’ SHOWstudio was named after the verb ‘to show’, and Knight has never intended for his endeavours to remain exclusive to a crowd in the know. As fashion talks of the Metaverse and avatars, Knight is drawn to the potential of the space for collaborative creation. ‘Is the fashion sculpture the metaverse’s version of the fashion photograph?’