After decades of trailblazing designer shoots, Nick Knight has pronounced photography 'dead'. Nevertheless, the artist is at the forefront of a technological revolution in how fashion is consumed. Peter Simpson meets the man behind Lane Crawford's latest campaigns
I bet Nick Knight never had a skinhead menacing him in his childhood.
This obscure envy flashes across my mind as I walk through the upmarket London borough of Belgravia looking for Knight's SHOWstudio - The Home of Fashion Film. The photographer behind Lane Crawford's autumn-winter 2012 and spring-summer 2013 advertising campaigns burst onto the scene in 1982 with his seminal book Skinhead, which offered rare insight into the British working-class subculture.
Almost every British council-housing estate in the late 1970s and early 80s had a resident group of skinheads and each had a leader: the biggest and meanest among them, with the shortest hair and the crudest India-ink tattoos. They wore pressed, checked, buttoned-down shirts or Fred Perry polos; bold braces over their shoulders or flapping around the buttocks; jeans bleached with an industrial attitude and a Harrington black or military green flight jacket. In winter, perhaps a Crombie coat. Then there was the signature footwear - highly shined Dr Martens boots with come-to-kick-you laces criss-crossing from just behind the toes to mid-shin.
Flicking through Knight's book ahead of our interview, the minacious garb and spiky heads triggered hard-forgotten memories. On my estate, the chief skin was Tony Paris and when he walked down our street, solo or with smaller skins in tow, we other kids ran for cover, porch doors swinging on their hinges and a high-noon eerie silence enveloping the area.
Unless you were one, you avoided skinheads at all costs, hiding behind bus shelters or your bigger mates - even your mum. But not Knight. This nice, middle-class boy from the peaceful lands of gravel drives and sculptured privets went out of his way to befriend skinheads and document them with his camera. He dived right into their den - London's East End - and Oi!, the loud, late-70s reprise of the original skinhead movement, from a decade earlier.
Knight clicked away exposing their street cred, style and ideology. Critics applauded him, calling his work "art".
"I actually found the skinhead girls really sexy," says Knight, as I relay my childhood trauma and we climb to the top of his five-storey studio and gallery. "The book launched me. It was a rite of passage. I now have three children, so I'm acutely aware of the time between childhood and adulthood, which needs some sort of demarcation.
"For me, it was that book," says the 54-year-old.
Short of signing up to the army, middle-class boys in search of adventure had to make do with crossing the tracks and walking among the prefabs, Ford Cortinas and corner-shop loiterers.
"For me, that's what Skinhead was. It was a moment where you questioned everything: your background; where you came from; your physique; your mettle - all those things. I was a middle-class boy and I threw myself into the harshest, most testing environment I could find, and that was a semi-deliberate choice.
"I wanted to find things out. I was aware of what I was doing. I wasn't forced into it. It wasn't as though I didn't have options. I could have stayed at medical college," he says, pausing to check his mental records. "Actually, I got chucked out of medical school …
"But I had studied hard. I could have stayed there and taken that career path. But it didn't feel satisfying. I felt I was floating through life. I had to have some way of putting myself on the line. I asked myself: 'OK Nick, who are you? What will you do in certain circumstances?'"
Knight would have made a good doctor. As I attempt to work through my skinhead phobia, he offers an ambiguous nod and a kindly laugh.
Dressed in a tie-less white shirt and well-cut but otherwise work-a-day blue suit, Knight does not come across as a shock tactician tearing up the rule book of how we view haute couture. But under the a la mode threads and gentle mannerisms bristles a relentless, ruthless, chaos-causing energy - a vortex that's been swirling through the fashion industry for three decades.
Shock is Knight's calling card and, as we speak, he provocatively declares that the medium that made him - photography - is dead.
Knight's ascendency dovetailed with the arrival of another shock tactician, Britain's first female prime minister, the late Margaret Thatcher. With almost Thatcherite zeal, he challenged the old guard and stuck up the proverbial two fingers at the class code and glass ceilings.
The likes of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bundchen and a galaxy of other glossy stars have passed before his lenses and, with his embrace of digital technology, through his computer chips.
Yohji Yamamoto, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Lancôme, Swarovski, Levi Strauss, Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent have all had the Knight treatment.
From the mid-90s, however, the darling of the fashion houses began to morph into something else. He started to question the unattainable and alienating ideals the profit-obsessed machine was manufacturing, with its stick-thin models and its monopoly on ideas and membership.
"I didn't like the fact that … the only people getting their clothes in a fashion shoot were the ones taking out the ads in the magazine," he says. "I didn't like the relationship between advertising and editorial. I couldn't photograph someone like a black model, someone over 35 - someone like my wife, who I happen to be in love with and who's curvaceous.
"The large fashion houses ignore the human attraction to quirkiness and imperfection."
So he has made it his mission to push back the parameters of what we see as beauty. He has used models in their 60s and 70s and others with physical disabilities. He promoted the curvaceous form of Sophie Dahl as a challenge to the lean beings that make many women feel inadequate.
In 2000, he set up his own studio-cum-lab, from where he has helped mastermind the end of the monopolies of the fashion elite, offering a "democratic" and affordable platform to the hitherto powerless talent tucked away in bedrooms and small studios around the world, cutting out the corporate middlemen and offering consumers more choice.
Does he relish this revenge on the establishment or does he feel remorse for biting the hand that fed him so well for so long?
"[Neither] really. I've played a very large part in that corporate invasion of fashion. I have had images shown around the world, on every magazine and perfume counter. I was omnipresent and I can't pretend I wasn't part of that industry. I made a lot of money for a lot of people. But now I work in a much more autonomous way from the fashion industry, so I don't feel part of it. I'm not bound by the same principles of working. And to some degree that's why I started SHOWstudio. I didn't like being constrained by the rules and parameters set by the commercial fashion world.
"Succeed or fail, it'll be on my own terms. I'll express what I want to do. It's not about making money for Conde Nast or whoever."
Knight's work has moved from glossy magazines and advertising billboards to film and his images have been exhibited at London institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, Saatchi Gallery, Tate Modern and Hayward Gallery.
IN HIS STUDIO, A LARGE converted attic, there are as many computer monitors and keyboards as there are lights and tripods. Several young women sit at a large desk clicking away on keyboards. Elaborately framed works of unusual art hang on the walls or are displayed in glass cabinets - a pink girdle and a punked-out Union flag; Knight is a consultant on a current exhibition about the punk movement at London's Metropolitan Museum.
The work station occupies one end of the open-plan room, the main feature of which is an expanse of white running continuously from the floor to the wall to the ceiling, a sterile world without contours or lines - a blank canvas. Around the edge are several large studio lights, television cameras on tripods and a bank of large hybrid computer/TV monitors.
In the middle are four dining chairs and a coffee table, arranged in a semi-circle. It is from here that Knight broadcasts to the world via the internet, hosting live discussions with designers and fellow image wizards, reviewing catwalks from Milan to Malmo and discussing what's in vogue and other issues that excite and rile him.
His Lane Crawford brief, he says, was fulfilled using cutting-edge 3D scanning, the latest tool with which he is bending reality.
"It's the first time this technique has been used concentratively [ sic]. 3D scanning is the next wave. You put a model in the middle of a pod of cameras and you take three scans, like making a bump map reading. Then you take a photographic image which is applied on the top of that.
"With all that data you get a 3D vision which you can do what you want with. We had a motion-capture session, which is what they do in video games to get realistic fighting. They put a real fighter in a motion-capture suit to record all their movements."
Campaign model Ming Xi was put in one of the suits and told to strut her stuff in a motion-capture studio.
"We got her to do all the things models do - walking, posing, everything else. Then we apply that data to the 3D scan.
"It's all very exciting stuff, it's all very new," he says.
So how far are we from having holograms of models strutting the latest fashions across the living room rug?
"It's not as far away as you think - a projection of a fashion model, Kate Moss or whoever, here," he says, gesturing to the space in front of us, "moving around as we talk."
Knight picks up an imaginary mouse to emphasise the new dawn about to break on our tabulated laps and coffee tables.
"And you'll be able to go click-click-click and change her from a Prada to a Givenchy, and there you go - she'll start walking round. There're lots of possibilities, lots of new things to try and do."
But it's the fashion-media world that's really changed - and is changing still, he says.
"Conventionally, I was a photographer, so I took fashion photographs for fashion magazines. That changed with the internet - where we could download these 30-second films without a problem. Now I can get through to a much larger audience without going through Vogue.
"Surely it's better to show how the designer originally created it. It's better for the product and it's better for designers like Miuccia Prada, because people will see her dress in movement rather than as a still photograph. It's better for the public; everybody."
Through the internet, Knight says, he has discovered talent in obscure corners of the globe - often by accident. The talent pool is no longer constrained within two square miles in each of London, Paris, Milan and New York.
"And the talent out there is phenomenal," he adds.
"I'm not happy when this medium tries to limit a new medium. And that's why I say evocatively that photography is dead. Photography stopped when film stopped. Now there's a hell of a lot you can do on a computer," he says.
Knight believes the democracy and accessibility such technology brings scare the old guard. "And that's because it is becoming affordable. Seven or eight years ago, I did a commercial film shoot for Christian Dior in LA, for a perfume called J'Adore. On my film set I had 70 people. But now I can make exactly the same film with about four people.
"But that's 66 people unemployed, so that's a big human problem," he says.
These changes have to happen, though, he insists.
"In London's Soho you have lots of post-production suites and they'll charge about £10,000 [HK$122,000] a day. But now, when I'm working on a fashion film, I'll work with somebody on a laptop and they do a better job for less money.
"There's a fundamental crunch happening," he says.
A consequence of this is that consumers are no longer waiting for four months for magazines to tell them about a great pair of boots that came down a catwalk.
"Now Yves Saint Laurent's fashion show goes out live on the internet. People who love YSL will desire the latest range on that day.
"The clever designers are starting to sell straight from the catwalk. It's the one time you have the designer saying, 'This is me,' in front of the public. And the public decides. They're by-passing the buyer and the magazine and getting orders straight in.
This is a boon for boutique designers everywhere, from Helsinki to Hong Kong, he says, gesturing towards his tools of revolt again.
"I'm not doing this out of dislike for magazines, it's just that's what's happening and the clever designers are cashing in.
"This is the crucial point. We do panel discussions here," he says. "We might have a buyer, art director, model, hairdresser, fashion historian and a designer. And we all sit here, and as a fashion show comes up live online, they'll critique it - just as you would do for a sports match," he says.
Fashion previously only ever addressed industry insiders, he points out. "But now it's made that leap and talked to the public. Now it can talk to a massive audience like never before and boast viewing figures that outstrip any magazine circulation. And, of course, it's unfettered.
"It's better for the artist, it's better for the audience, it's better for the art. The only person that suffers is the wheeler dealer profiteer in the middle."
Such is the passion and intensity of Knight's convictions, you can sense the rumblings and upheaval taking place across the fashion districts of London. Having helped bring in the new order, is he content?
"Yes. I am content, but that would imply satisfaction, which I don't have. I don't feel I can rest on my laurels. Every day is quite a struggle. I'm not rich but that's fine. I feel that the sort of thing I can do here is so much more rewarding and I'm happy about that.
"But life is hard and it's hard to keep the studio going. We don't carry any advertising. There's no money coming in other than through the gallery. Basically, I pay for the whole thing. The rest of it is paid for by the love and the desire to say something and do something and create exciting stuff and not waiting for someone to say you can only do it a certain way.
"I felt that all the work I was doing before was to help somebody sell a product. And that's fine. I endorsed that relationship while I was in it but I didn't want it to be the only avenue in my life."
He says he has ambitions to replicate his studio across the world. "There's a certain desire to have one in New York, Beijing, Berlin, Moscow and Hong Kong. This is actually quite a small unit. There are only 12 people here so it's very reproducible across the world."
His wife, Charlotte, walks into the studio and reminds him he has a live panel discussion in an hour and the talking heads will soon start arriving. How should he be addressed - as an artist, a consultant, a guru, a revolutionary?
"You can say I am an artist. I'm aware of all the negative connotations that that raises but I'll say it because it's the closest thing to what I am and do.
"I don't need to define myself. Twenty-five years ago I'd say I was a photographer; I don't want to have that conversation with a cab driver any more."
Does he still have the camera he shot Skinhead with?
"I do but it no longer works. It's an Olympus Pen EE, which is a little film camera that took 72 frames."
He demonstrates with an invisible camera.
"You had a little strap round your wrist - it was very personal - with the flash mounted on top. It was a good camera - 72 clicks before you had to change the film. And you had one hand free."
And with that he is gone, leaving the impression that the revolutionary with a passion for the new still harbours affection for the ways of the past.
The message appears to be: photography is dead, long live photography.