I confess: Until I came across Flora, the culmination of 3 plus years worth of photographing the Natural History Museum’s vast collection of flowers and plants, I had assumed that Nick Knight is a fashion photographer.
And with some reason. Together with John Galliano (now disgraced), he has defined the aesthetic of 21st century Christian Dior. We properly heard about him via i-D, way back in the 1980s. He helped frame Yohji Yamamoto’s breakaway design. He’s worked on campaigns for everyone from Alexander McQueen to Louis Vuitton to Jill Sander. He took that picture of Naomi Campbell, and that one of Kate Moss, and Gemma Ward, and Linda Evangelista, and so on. He was awarded a Moet Chandon in 2006. Nick Knight is a fashion photographer.
This is wrong, obviously, but not as obviously as you might think. I’ll be quick. Knight has always worked in different genres. Skinheads, his first work, his juvenilia, is as much a portrait of a society as it is fashion. He has photographed the likes of Bjork, Bowie, Kanye West and Lady Gaga. Flora is not his only still life work. Personally, I love Explosions, his pictures of paint doing what it says on the series tin. Plus he shoots film, makes documentaries, video. SHOW studio, his virtual collaborative is an online multimedia workshop. He’s a fashion photographer and he is other things, beyond even still photography. He thinks of photography as a dying art form.
So, yes, I know. Nick Knight is also a filmmaker. He’s interested in subject matter outside of what we would normally call fashion. He’s neither precious nor evangelical about the medium that gave him the world. However, I think much more interesting the fact that, for all his commercial success, Knight prefers working at something to the final work. For him, process is all, from concept to finish. Going further, there is in this no hierarchy of importance, not the moment of capture, not the image made a thing, or the instant it is third party acknowledged: everything – the idea, the failure of idea, the making, the post-making – is of absolute equal value. The process, he intimates, is about people doing. It’s a performance, in real time, a once in a lifetime happening. In-production is where it’s at. Live is his thing. Hence SHOW Studio.
I like this – a lot. But, to the maker, it still feels super normal. Knight’s experimenting with the tools of his time. He will use anything to say something. He prefers process to final object. He escapes categorisation. This is normal. It’s still making stuff with a tool. What is different, however, is how he tries to drive process through the final image, and how, therefore, a Knight photograph feels like something about to take flight – or scuttle away, or blow up, or fade out of sight. It is the narrative disrupted, suspended, poised. It is remarkably un-still like. It is not moving and yet everything about it is poised to move. It is fluidity waiting to happen. It’s a question, not an answer.
And where better to pose the question, than in fashion? And to do so using the flower? For if fashion, by definition, occupies the most fluid of spaces, then the flower is the question mark’s perfect vehicle. The flower or plant is, for Knight, more than beautiful thing. It is the means by which Knight transgresses the limitations of photography. It is how he captures the impossible: the future unfolding in a photograph. Look at his photographs. Beautiful, menacing, untouchable monster hybrids. Humans becoming plant. And plants becoming human, which is what Flora is: a collection of studies for humans yet to be born, through fashion, as performance, a moment yet to happen.
So, more than fashion photographer, or even photographer, Knight is a communicator of a perpetual state of becoming. He makes pictures not to represent. They can’t. They are made to invent our alternatives. They’re us, in the maybe future, a fiction, on the move. They’re everything that hasn’t happened. They turn time on its head.