Surrealism: Q&A With Nick Knight

by Astrid Hiort on 26 March 2020

Nick Knight on how Surrealistic pioneers within photography came to influence him, the desire to create the unseen and how some of his wildest surreal-looking work came to be.

Nick Knight on how Surrealistic pioneers within photography came to influence him, the desire to create the unseen and how some of his wildest surreal-looking work came to be.

Surrealism has long had an impact on fashion image-making, appealing as it does to the subconscious in a way to break through the rigidity of social expectations. As one of fashion’s influential image-makers, Nick Knight too has approached Surrealist ideas, from artistic ethos to stylistic tropes in his work. Here, he explains how he approaches Surrealism, and how his work intersects with the Surrealist tradition.

AH: What drew you to surrealism?

NK: When I was a student it was really important to me and it was something that I naturally gravitated towards as I first started to explore photography. There was a disrespect for the media and I quite liked the freedom of that.

The general proposal of surrealism seems to be that it’s the unconstrained workings of the mind are better. So surrealists are very interested in their dreams because according to surrealists, when you are asleep your mind is free and not constrained by social norms, and therefore acting in a much more creative way. I slightly don’t believe that.

Instead, I think what your mind is doing [in dreams] is putting things back in some sort of order. However, I do like the idea that the mind is freer when you are asleep and it’s freed of society’s norms and pressures. I’ve always preferred problems to answers and I think that’s what a lot of surrealist imagery does, because it proposes a less explained way. It makes people think. In a very personal sense, I love it - for instance poems of Breton that I’ve also worked with and I love looking at Man Ray’s work.

Brad Pitt reading Andre Breton’s poem Freedom of Love, directed by Nick Knight, 2004

AH: Why Man Ray? 

NK: There is a real beauty in his work, and also a power and an energy in it. I like that his work feels difficult. It’s the compilation of beauty, arrogance, energy and dynamics. Over the years his work has repeatedly come to influence me. 

Man Ray was really connected to virtually every important artist in the early part of the 20th century. He photographed every artist that went through his studio from Dali to Picasso, and he worked with other artists like Giacometti and Brancusi. But it’s not these studio portraits that are considered his best work: the great pictures he made were about his love for Lee Miller and his love for Kiki de Montparnasse. So, it’s actually about his love life.

I first came across Man Ray in my journey into photography. I went into photography to experience life, and to understand what photography was, I started looking at who the practitioners were. To become informed about photography [as a medium], I went to the art college library (Bournemouth & Poole College) and just pulled out book after book, until I’d been through the whole library. The early photographers  I was excited about were people like Man Ray or László Moholy-Nagy or Russian constructivists like Alexander Rodchenko. Those were the first people who grasped me, because they had some sort of desire to create imagery rather than create photography. I was less interested in the people who were the purest in photography, like Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was more interested in people who were cutting things up, putting things in the fridge or burning things and drawing on things. That was what appealed to me first.

I discovered Man Ray quite quickly in this process. I think it was probably the image Sleeping Woman that I first encountered.

Man Ray was one of those photographers, who pushed boundaries of photography through experimentation, which I have continued to do and I enjoy doing. The latest series of pictures I have published of Sinead O’Dwyer’s work are pushing the boundaries of what is image-making of photography, and I like the fact that he did that.

He was also doing experimental films, which I am doing as well and I felt we had some sort of synergy.

Sinéad O'Dwyer's S/S 20 collection photographed by Nick Knight, 2020

AH:  The Surrealists believe that the subconscious is key to creative expression. How does that fit in with your approach to your work?

NK: I want to create the imagery that I want to see. The closest I can come to describing it is that there is a desire to create a feeling, desire, emotional drive in viewing my pictures. My process is not so much about seeing something and recreating that sight, it’s about feeling something and recreating that feeling. So, my work is largely about experiencing things that I can only experience in that space. 

I’m not a photographer, who wants to go out and photograph something of how it looks. I want to do something that isn’t how it looks.

I would argue that no photographer really goes out and shows you what the reality of the world is. They show you what they perceive and their opinion and they use their skills as photographers. The more skilled they are, the better they are at showing you their opinions. I don’t really think any great photographers are showing you reality. They show you their opinions.    

I shy away from saying words like ‘sight’ and ‘see’ because I don’t really think that’s how I work. I don’t take a picture of what I ‘see’. I take a picture of what I want to feel and what I desire. 

In an image like Devon for Visionaire 20, which featured fashion model Devon Aoki wearing Alexander McQueen, I wanted to see that because it excited me. I like the idea of the fragility and strength mixed together. I like the beauty of the composition and the pink and blue colours. Those are things that I like and I wanted to ‘feel’ them. 

Devon Aoki, Devon, Alexander McQueen, Visionaire 20, 1997

AH: How do you tap into your subconscious to bring your vision to life? 

NK: You start off with having an idea in your head, and then you work it out through talking to people reading books or watching films. It can also just be by driving late at night, which I do when I need to think of an idea, or I’m stuck. When you drive, your ‘front brain’ is occupied by having to look in the mirror, changing gears and watching out for people. Somehow, this frees up the other parts of your mind to be freer and much more imaginative. 

With the Devon image again, I didn’t see the picture exactly like its final version before I made it because I didn’t yet know what she was wearing. Once I saw her dressed like that then I started to build on top of it. I added the blue in her eye, which was a contact lens, and it started coming together.

There’s a lot of experimentation that happens through the whole process of however long the shoot lasts. It’s like entering into a make believe world, where you do things for your story that you are inventing in real time in your head.

When someone puts on a dress, you might think you know what that dress looks like, but then in the light you are using, the dress suddenly looks like water. That can spark off another idea in your mind, and another one, and so on. This same process of discovery continues afterwards: there is just as much invention after you’ve taken an image. When I get my file from the camera onto the computer, I start looking at the file to discover the parameters within the file and I try to push it around. I can then spontaneously come up with new ideas - just as I got them spontaneously during the shoot. An example of this could be the image of Jazzelle Zanaughetti dressed in Comme des Garçons (AnOther Magazine A/W16 issue). The foam-like objects that are behind her were something that I discovered in post-production as that was how the image reacted to a specific feature on the computer.

AnOther Magazine A/W16 issue photographed by Nick Knight, 2016

AH: That reminds me of how the surrealists investigated playfulness and experimentation as a way to break through social expectations. Regarding translating the fantasies of imagination into reality, how has technology changed that process? 

NK: Technology allows you to make juxtapositions more easily. Before the invention of digital photography at the end of the eighties, you couldn’t really conjoin things easily. I did a little bit, but it was awfully difficult. Digital photography allows you to blend things. It is often odd juxtapositions, because we can bring two different things together, but that’s just visually exciting.

It frees you from having to represent life as how you ‘see’ it, but actually how you want to see it or how you imagine it, or how you want to experience it.

AH: Surrealism as a movement was founded approximately a century ago. From a modern vantage point, how is Surrealism still relevant today? 

NK: Surrealism was born from a time where society was stricter, and people had more dogmatic beliefs. Society, then, had much more structured norms, and common ways of behaving and thought patterns. It was believed that most people thought the same. I think these stricter rules provoked much stronger opposition. It’s like Newton’s third law, which states for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you have a very strict society, you get a very strong push against it.

Artists have a lot more trouble trying to find meaning or purpose for doing their work, because the internet has given us incredible access to information and opinion that opens people's minds. Art is no longer the primary method of doing that. It's hard to 'shock' people with art: today we have a broad acceptance of what art can be. 

Now we are looking at an internet-based culture: I believe we are still waiting to see the full exploration of the art forms that come from the internet, like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. You are not necessarily going to see it on the pages of a book, but more likely to see it on a screen or around you. So, we haven’t yet understood the artforms of our age yet, but we will.



Footage: Surrealism & Process

25 September 2006
Archive film shot by legendary photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, demonstrating his surrealist experiments with camera tricks and Freudian symbols.

Essay: Schiap and Surrealism

27 May 2014
Ugly: Lucy Norris on Schiaparelli and surrealist fashion.

Fashion's Love Affair with the Surreal

24 February 2020
From Yves Saint Laurent to Virgil Abloh via Tim Walker and Shona Heath, fashion is closely intertwined with Surrealist values.
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