Freeze Frame

LCF Centenary Book - Alistair O'Neill (2006)


"I don’t see my work in terms of pictures that are hung on the wall which are admired or critiqued – I don’t see that as the final point, as I don’t like the arrogance of that way of presenting work. I just see them as an ongoing interest in life, an ongoing quest and an ongoing conversation."



Alistair O'Neill: I want to start with an observation about your practice. There was a television programme screened in 2001 called Year One: A Snapshot of Britain that you featured in. You were shown working on the War series of images that you created with the stylist Simon Foxton and one of the things that I found particularly illuminating about this clip was that it showed you working on-screen digitally and then turning around and working with cut-out elements over a light box in a very hands-on way. I just wanted to use that as a starting point really to ask you how important that kind of hands-on approach to creativity is to your practice? 

Nick Knight: I think they’re all different parts of an overall equation. I don’t make any difference really between any part of the process and I don’t place any more emphasis on one part of the process rather than another part. I feel the process of making an image from the moment it’s conceived in your head to the moment that it’s published; the moment it is on billboards or on screens – all that is all one continual process.  

Throughout that process there are different media that you use, that you choose to work with and there are different forms that you express it with. To me, there’s no difference between the moment that you start photocopying things and cutting them up, to the moment the model stands in front of the camera, between the moment that you’re sitting in your room thinking ‘What would it be like if we mixed that with that?’ You know, to the moment you’re referencing to the moment that you’re talking to the people on set. It’s all part of the continual process of which I don’t see a sort of helpful way of dividing it up. What I’m trying to say is that a lot of people view that, the moment you take the photograph, as a paramount moment in the whole of the equation…

AON: Of course, the decisive moment.

NK: …and I don’t think that’s true. I think it is an important moment but I think there are a lot of other important moments, and so I don’t make any difference and therefore I don’t have any problem with swapping from things cut up on a light box to then moving them around in Photoshop; any more than I have a problem moving from one lens to another and changing film, or asking the models to stand, sit, pose, move, etc.

They’re all little parts of an overall creation, or an overall equation where you end up being one step further on. In an even broader sense I don’t see my work in terms of pictures that are hung on the wall which are admired or critiqued – I don’t see that as the final point, as I don’t like the arrogance of that way of presenting work. I just see them as an ongoing interest in life, an ongoing quest and an ongoing conversation.  So, I see the whole thing as very transient and very fluid; as once you’ve learnt or understood something you don’t want to then go back and try and re-understand it; once you’ve opened that door you don’t feel that you want to go back and reopen that door to discover what’s in the room again, because you know what’s in that room.

AON: But just to return to that moment at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems that the War series was very much caught up with the publication of The Impossible Image too, and it seemed at that point in time that the notion of digital imaging and the digital age was very much at the forefront of the discussion about creativity and possibility and it seems to me now that that’s somewhat modified since that point in time.

NK: Well, it was a new toy in the same way that when people moved on to a handheld 35mm camera and stopped having a huge great big tripod and a single sheet 10x8, when Martin Munkácsi revolutionised the fashion world by suddenly grabbing hold of a camera and running with it. Or when people like Robert Capa used it for war reportage or David Bailey kind of famously injected life into a posed sketch just as Beaton had been doing – these are all moments where the technical side of things becomes very, very important, and people talk a lot about those moments when they’re happening and they discuss them widely. Even the advent of photography was discussed in similar sorts of terms, and actually I don’t really make those differences: as there is no difference between Photoshop and the new wide-angle lens.

They are just toys if you want, or less glibly, tools that you use to express your point of view and some are more profound as you can do more with them and some are less profound. If you’re moving from holding a 35mm camera to having a camera on a tripod that doesn’t essentially move, you’ve got quite a different way of working.

In the same way, you can now have your camera plugged into a bank of computers at the back of the room with somebody getting the images and viewing them on the screen, that engenders a different way of working, and quite a good way of working I’d add; and then more people can join in and the discussion of the image is more open. I think that is a very beneficial thing for the image-maker and all those concerned in the image.  

After all, we tend not to make images just for ourselves, just for our own viewing pleasure, we tend to make them for a reason: for other people, with other people. So I think opening up that process is very important. There are several things that the digital age has done in terms of the technicality of making the picture, but there’s a much broader change that has happened which is fundamental and is probably bigger than anything we’ve talked about which is the advent of the Internet.

AON: Of course.

NK: The Internet as a communication device is revolutionary, as much as paper was when it was first invented. I think we now have a completely new way of communicating as a species and I think that’s never really happened before. The fact that I can take my mobile phone, take an image and have it published within a split second to a global audience without anybody saying to me, ‘Well, is that going to make me any money?’ – that’s a revolution.

Before, if I wanted to do a set of photographs I would have to convince the magazine publisher, a music company, or whoever it would be – some client – to allow me to publish that series of photographs. And it would be to some degree to, you know, nearly always, to make somebody money, whether it’s a gallery owner or your dealer, your gallery dealer, or whether it’s the head of Warner Brothers or the head of Condé Nast. Somebody in the end is making some money from you. Now that relationship between the artist and the audience has fundamentally been changed by the advent of the Internet. Now I can publish a set of pictures, not for anybody else’s financial benefit, and other people can see them, and if they’re good, people like them and want to see more of them, then they’re not going to be ignored. It’s a simplification of the situation but it does mean that not only can we communicate in a totally global and unfettered way but it also means that the sort of work that we do now is much more free; because I can take a series of images and have those downloaded with some sound, I can put bits of film in there, I can use mobile phones, I can still use 10x8 cameras – it just opens the whole thing up. It’s a completely, completely different way of communicating to anything we’ve ever had before.

AON: Yes, and I think that SHOWstudio as a project demonstrates that interface between digital imaging and a digital community interested in that form of creativity. One of the things that I think SHOWstudio has been brilliant at illustrating is process…

NK: Yes.

AON: …and secondly, an understanding of fashion in motion and I just wondered if you could reflect on that?

NK: I think they’re very good observations. I think that’s almost the core value of SHOWstudio. One was to show the whole process of creating a piece of work, and the other was to show that actually now we have the medium that can support this, that in fact is very good for this.

We can now show fashion moving, whereas for the last fifty or so years it has, to some degree, been only shown as a still image; and one could argue that that stillness is a compromise to the understanding of that piece of clothing. I think that now you can show a piece of clothing in movement it’s quite a different medium and I think that’s very exciting.  

AON: Well, there is another sense of movement which I’ve observed, looking at SHOWstudio, and that’s your personal movement when you’re creating things. It’s very easy to see you pacing around when you’re shooting and it seems to me that this sense of movement is quite important to your creative process. There are other precedents, Alexey Brodovitch comes to mind, and the idea of him doing a kind of dance around his layouts at Harper’s Bazaar when they were laid out on the floor… 

NK: You’re being very astute Alistair, the show was originally going to be called…

AON: Ha-ha.

NK: …because they were certain things that I believed in when we started SHOWstudio. One was process, the second was performance and the third was moving fashion.

AON: Right.

NK: Performance is something that I’ve noticed is an important part of what I do. It’s an instantaneous moment of creation when I’m taking a photograph; and that performance is very charged. It is a performance you do in front of a small audience normally of between ten to twenty people and you give a physical performance in the same way that the model is giving a performance. I’ve become much more aware of my physical presence on a shoot and I’ve taken certain photographs in some ways to try to explore that. One always thinks that the model is actually doing all of the physical work but actually the photographer or the image-maker is doing an awful lot of physical performance. The whole thing taken together with all the attendants, stylists, art directors and everyone else on the shoot is a piece of theatre – it’s a piece of contemporary, live, creative, ongoing theatre and I think that’s fascinating.

And the actual physical performance of pacing is how you deal with your own physicality. I pace and I tend not to do it so much now as I’m much more aware. It’s been mentioned in interviews too many times that I pace up and down and I find myself becoming a caricature of myself, but I’ve noticed there are physical things one does. I’ve always videoed my shoots, so there is always a video recorder on the tripod left recording, which has allowed me to go back and look through some of those shoots now for different projects. I should make a film about it, and I do realise now that there are a whole series of gestures and body shapes that you throw to encourage the models to do the same thing, even though I have a completely different physicality to the model, so the physical performance is enormously important.

When I photographed Naomi Campbell for Yohji Yamamoto in 1986 when she was just starting out and Yohji had done his take on the early collections of the original Christian Dior and he had done these fantastic inspired coats but they were just in colours either bright green or bright red. Naomi put on one of the red coats and did a performance on a piece of beautiful perspex which was laid down on the floor of the walkway and she put on a tape that Prince had just given her and started doing this sort of series of walks up and down.

Just standing there watching Naomi in the red coat with the flash going off in the background created a latent image of her frozen in the back of your retina. It was quite a performance; as a piece of contemporary fashion theatre it was quite stunning. And it’s from those days really, back in 1986, that I thought – well, there’s something here that nobody else is seeing because they are only seeing the end image, of course, and they’re not witness to this, as it’s only a very fraction of what I’m experiencing.  A performance that happens in a studio is exceedingly interesting and one of the things we try to do in SHOWstudio (and coincidently we are doing Naomi again on Monday and Tuesday) is allowing people to witness that performance as a live broadcast.

AON: A very rich area of SHOWstudio’s archive is the rediscovered films of fashion shoots, I’m thinking particularly of those by Guy Bourdin and Erwin Blumenfeld. It seems to me that you are suggesting that there is a much broader history to this kind of filmmaking that needs to be preserved and needs to be better understood?

NK: Well, we have a series of artists and photographers that we gain things from. Most image-makers tend to dabble around in different mediums that they are connected to, so I know that Bob Richardson, Terry’s dad, videoed everything. I know that Helmut Newton produced lots of films, as did Serge Lutens and Jean Paul Goude. We are securing these to show at Showstudio at the moment because they show another version of the understanding of that person’s world; and what they are trying to express through still photography often opened up through moving image in quite an interesting way. And the images that came through on Bourdin and the images that came through on Blumenfeld were just as powerful or as beautiful or as surreal or as menacing as their still images.

AON: I quite agree with you on that.

NK: And I found that fascinating. It’s an ongoing project and we are talking to the estates of those photographers and we are also talking to the ones that are still alive and trying to secure the footage.

AON: I can certainly see it as offering a completely different dimension to the understanding of a creative. We were lucky enough to have Jean Paul Goude give a talk at our college and he screened a film that he had made about his work and it gave a completely different reading to it as it was contextualised through the traditions of American dance…

NK: Right.

AON: …rather than American fashion or American photography; it was just so illuminating and I think that a lot more work needs to be explored in this way.

NK: Well I would happily if someone gives me some more money…

AON: Ha-ha.

NK: …that would make it better but that’s what we are currently working on. It’s one of those things isn’t it – there are so many things to try and do.

AON: Well, we’ve spoken about the kind of difference between still image and moving image and I want to talk about another kind of divide or a way of understanding your work. Your work is collected by museums internationally and in this country the most obvious site for it is the Victoria and Albert Museum, our National Museum of Art and Design. Yet people are perhaps not so aware of the fact that you also have a relationship with those museums that exist on the other side of Exhibition Road, that articulate that division between the arts and sciences and I’m referring to the Plant Power display for the Natural History Museum but also Flora, your publication of photographs from 1997. How do you situate yourself across that nineteenth-century dividing span? 

NK: Well, I started my studies as a scientist as I came from a family of scientists. My brother was a Doctor of Chemistry, my father was a psychologist and my mother was a psychotherapist, so I was destined to go toward science. I studied Human Biology at London University in 1978 and I hated it, I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t see any reason to study at university as the plan was to go into Medicine, but I just couldn’t see any relevance to the emotional desires that I had at that point of my life. Just sitting there bored, watching massive equations going across the blackboard and thinking, I just can’t be bothered to concentrate, I’m not interested; I don’t want to be here, this isn’t for me. 

So I backed out of it. I left after a year and went to Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and took up photography against my family’s advice; but they knew nothing about the arts, all they probably thought was, ‘Our son is going to be poor and starving and we are all going to end up supporting him’. So they were supportive of me in an emotional sense, but just worried that I would never be able to make a living from this because they only had experience of making money through science, through that side of life. So I found throughout my photography career that I have approached the problem-solving of imagery in a scientific manner.

AOL: How interesting.

NK: There was a lot of trying to do a scientific experiment: accepting the fact that something doesn’t work is as important as the fact that something does work. It just proves or disproves what you believe and helps you get further towards a better understanding of your topic. Now, failure is an important part of what I do and so in a pragmatic way, when I stand in front of whoever it is – whether it’s Robert de Niro, or whether it’s Kate Moss – to some degree I have to produce an image of them. 

The first one that comes out of the camera is usually going to be, you could term it as a failure; and facing up to the emotional factor of that failure, in a very public way, is a very healthy growth of the overall process. In science this would be quite normal but in the arts there is a sort of desire to hide away the fact that you actually don’t know how to do it straight away – it’s usually a lot of trial and error. 

There is also an understanding of trying to see things as they actually are in science and I think that’s useful in terms of image-making: to actually try to work out what it is you’re trying to say and what’s actually there. I think there’s an analytical approach applied throughout scientific research, which I’ve applied again and again through my image-making. And despite of myself in my early, formative years science has informed – or if you like shaped – my approach to image-making. I’m interested in an inquisitive way in how an image functions. I’m interested in how a latent image records on the back of the retina. I’m interested in how memories affect our work. On SHOWstudio we’ve had the chance to develop things like synaesthesia. Those sorts of projects are created through a love or questing for knowledge which is a similar situation that one might find yourself in as a research scientist and so in that way I think I’m actually probably pretty much on the same sort of course I would have been; I just have gone about it in a very different way.

AOL: Well that’s a very interesting response to my question because it confirms an observation that I’ve had about your body of work, Flora. They are undeniably beautiful modern images of flowers, but they are also very reminiscent of William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograms of floral forms; and it seems that this idea of quest that you’ve just raised is very much in keeping with the techniques that the early pioneers of photography were dealing with. So I suppose that leads me on to ask you how you situate yourself in relation to that very broad trajectory of photographic history?

NK: I’ve always felt that I’ve come at the end of photography, the end of its existence as a medium as a predominant image-making medium. Ever since I started it in the late seventies, I’ve felt that I wasn’t really at the beginning of something; I felt I was more at the end of something and the beginning of something else. So I’ve never felt anything other than a sort of love for the future and a love of what’s happening next, so I don’t have any sort of emotional ties to photography. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question…

AON: No no, you certainly are.

NK: …but I think there is a new medium happening and almost from the beginning of my career I’ve been waiting for the Internet to allow this to get through. I think that there is a very exciting thing happening and I think that photography really is holding us back in a lot of ways. There is a lot of discussion about manipulation being a negative thing and I think photography has been saddled quite wrongly in my opinion as the bringer of truth, as the witness to the un-witnessable event. So now I feel actually in my real medium whereas photography was a way into that. Just as those early pioneers of photography must have also felt that they were doing something different from painting, I feel a sort of kinship in that way. So if there is any link to be made between myself and the early pioneers of photography it’s simply being at the beginning of a new medium – but I’m not at the beginning of photography. I’m at the beginning of a new medium which is defined by the Internet, digital technology, mobile phones, even 3-D scanning.  3-D scanning is a very exciting and new part of what I do, allowing me to produce 3-D objects, which we could call sculptures if we wanted to, using the same skill set as I would use to produce a 2-D image.  So how I approach the person in front of the scanner or the person in front of the camera is very similar.

AON: Well I think 3-D body-scanning technology is an interesting example in that it was developed as a measuring tool rather than a creative tool. It was primarily for body metrics and it seems to me that how one goes about galvanising this technology is very important in the sense of changing the technology’s intention.

NK: I’ve always been delighted in a computer going wrong.

AON: Ha-ha.

NK: And I did my first 3-D scanning with a company based in the former Ealing Film Studios site who were creating, who were trying to reanimate old dead actors and they had a 3-D scanner rig which had been developed in Edinburgh, I think, or one of the other Scottish universities. The technique applied a photographic image over a sort of contour map of the body but of course what the computer couldn’t decide when putting this together was if something that reflected was a solid object or not and whether that solid object was receding from the lens or advancing towards it.

So the computer would have to make it up and it produced wonderful and beautiful patterns of geometric forms, which seemed to go on as if the computer didn’t know how to stop it. And I loved the fact that the preciseness of the technical age was quite quickly being shown a random set of badly worked out equations it couldn’t work out. It gave it a human side, which I thought was rather intriguing. So I’ve always liked the fact that when these things are set up to do something, you try to use them upside down or the wrong way round etc. – it exposes parts which are very interesting.

AON: Quite. I do think that that notion of imperfection is something that you chart through the different bodies of work that you have produced across your career…

NK: I am sorry to interrupt you but it’s something that in my mind is linked to failure and I think that’s a very helpful thing 

AON: …yes, a very human thing.

NK: Yes.

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