Interview: photographer Nick Knight
The revered fashion photographer on his passion for English garden roses
A rose, is a rose, is a rose; except when Nick Knight is taking the picture. In the hands of the famous artist, fashion photographer and filmmaker, rose petals are immense folds of textural colour, like laundered sheets billowing in the wind, or pastel-coloured nebulae against a creamy sky.
“Roses From My Garden”, Knight’s photographic series of ethereal blooms, will go on show at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire later this year (the March opening date has been postponed). Knight rarely displays his own work in gallery spaces and is not big on books, publishing his last retrospective monograph in 2009. This is not to say that Knight has an aversion to the traditions of the art world, rather that he is inspired by technology and new media.
In 2000, he founded SHOWstudio, an award-winning fashion website that pushes the boundaries of the discipline. The site hosted the first live-streamed fashion show, Alexander McQueen’s SS10 presentation “Plato’s Atlantis”, the designer’s final runway show before his death. What’s more, nearly all of Knight’s photoshoots are broadcast live on the site. SHOWstudio remains a radical force in digital media thanks to its collaborations between established talent and new stars of the creative firmament.
“I tend to look forward rather backwards,” says Knight over the phone from California, where he is currently working with famous clients including Lady Gaga Billie Eilish. “I’m 61 already and I have lots of things I want to do. I think of images as conversations. Once you have asked a question and found the answer, there’s no desire for me to go back and reconsider the same question. Also, I like the age we are in, and I want to explore new ways of seeing, new technologies.”
Knight has worked with countless fashion brands, from Tom Ford to Jil Sander, and has produced some of Vogue’s most iconic image. He has also shot album covers for Björk, David Bowie, Massive Attack and Lady Gaga (producing the latter’s Born This Way music video). Throughout his 40-year career, the image-maker - a title he prefers to photographer - has challenged conventional beauty ideals and produced his own language of desire.
His work with McQueen, Yohji Yamamoto and John Galliano was not only pioneering from a technical and storytelling perspective, but instrumental in elevating fashion photography to a more conceptual plain. Knight’s images can be fierce, transgressive, disruptive and mind-expanding, as well as poetic. One of the most compelling things about Knight is his ability to surprise, and in recent years, he has worked closely with one of music’s most divisive stars, Kanye West, directing the rapper’s IMAX documentary, Jesus is King.
Outward-looking projects such as these appear to jar with the introverted beauty of flowers and the quiet of a gallery space. But nothing is quite what it seems with Knight. This is the English rose expressed in a whole new way. The imposingly large images were shot on his iPhone and then sharpened using AI software that increases the size and resolution of each pixel.
As with all of Knight’s projects, the act of producing was intense, from photographing the roses (he takes hundreds in order to pick just one) to filtering the images through software, to retouching and refining the final composition.
“An enormous amount of work goes on between cutting the roses from my garden and having their image on a gallery wall,” he says. “I think artists overwork their imagery because they can see it. I’ve spent days trying to reduce the 2% [component] of magenta in an image because it makes the photograph more beautiful and harmonious.”
Why roses? Quite apart from his love of 17th and 18th-century still life painters such as Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jan van Huysum, Knight is a flower enthusiast. In 1993, he worked with British architect David Chipperfield on “Plant Power”, an installation at the Natural History Museum that took Knight three years to research as he was given full access to some of the institution’s six million herbarium specimens.
“The only tattoo I do have is of a rose,” he reveals. “In the ’70s, I went to Jock’s Tattoo Parlour on Pentonville Road. I wanted to have a black panther drawn on my arm, and I imagined that the tattoo artist might have some skill in that department, but sadly he didn’t. He refused to illustrate a panther and suggested I chose something off the wall. I saw something that looked vaguely OK – a rose – and of course by then I had prevaricated enough with a restless queue of customers behind me, so I went ahead with it.”
Like many of Knight’s fashion pictures, his roses – which up close have a patina that is neither grainy like traditional photography nor painterly like brushstrokes – possess a sense of otherworldliness. Knight has his own explanation as to why he finds the flowers so compelling.
“The bar is set very high with the many great creative minds I work with, so the roses [signify] moments of contemplation. Photographing them gave me immense pleasure.The petals became brushstrokes or feathers or a couture dress. I like it when the image starts to make you think of other things.”
In Knight’s world, everything, it seems, leads back to fashion. “It is something that is so joyous to me,” he says. “Fashion is incredibly important to society. I also think that we as people are so very adept at it. Even those who say they know nothing about fashion, their style always speaks about them.
“[My mother] loved to dress up; sometimes she would change five times a day. She wanted me to be a doctor, and I think she was slightly mortified when I failed at doing that, but when I became a fashion photographer it was much better for her,” he laughs.
“Roses from My Garden” at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.