Interview: Nick Knight on Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down

published on 28 June 2005

Nick Knight discusses the origins and themes of his Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down collaboration with Liberty Ross with The Independent's Susannah Frankel. A version of this interview was printed in The Independent, 23 June 2005.

Nick Knight discusses the origins and themes of his Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down collaboration with Liberty Ross with The Independent's Susannah Frankel. A version of this interview was printed in The Independent, 23 June 2005.

Susannah Frankel: What were your references for this story?

Nick Knight: The main subject that I wanted to deal with was the issue of control and that emerged from me talking to some of the models. You know those photographs of models that I took for the Millennium issue of British Vogue, of Penelope Tree, Twiggy and all the models of the past fifty years. Some of the models I spoke to, particularly those who were models in the fifties and sixties, spoke to me a lot about control. They were saying, often quite plaintively, that they hadn't had any control over one of the most creative periods of their lives. That got me to thinking about how models get themselves into the position where really they don't control their own image. On the other hand, personally I feel better when I lose control than when I know exactly what I'm doing. I purposefully allow an element of chance to come into my work because otherwise you end up using the same creative steps and you get a similar vision at the end of the route. So really I wanted to articulate, through a series of projects, different points of control.

SF: And how does the reference to live, pornographic video chats fit in?

NK: I was thinking there's an odd comparison to be made. Essentially we're handing over control to our audience and they have a girl in a room and they're telling her what to do, in fact, they're dressing her, and it did make me think 'well, this isn't actually that far away from those rooms where men and women tell other people what to do'.

SF: Do you not think that the format might attract the wrong sort of viewer?

NK: It's only sex in the end. But the funny thing is we don't attract on SHOWstudio the kind of sinister, violent comments that you see elsewhere on the internet. We did a project with Simon Foxton at the beginning of this year where we asked him to do living stills of men's fashion. We asked him to dress a man and then have him sit as if he was having his picture taken, just like a living still all day long and next to him was a telephone and the phone number was printed alongside so anybody could phone him up and ask him anything. And we just thought 'oh God, it's just going to be loads of guys phoning up and saying these lewd things', but not one was like that. People would phone up and ask very polite questions. Obviously, there's a chance that people might phone up and say rude things to Liberty but to be honest everybody has to register. We'll see.

SF: And if you did?

NK: Penny will be moderating this. It isn't just a free for all. I think it's just a question of what is considered normal behaviour. Your wouldn't go into a meeting at the Natural History Museum and start talking about lewd things or about sex. Nor would you do it on Question Time. I just think it's about appropriate behaviour.

SF: And how does Liberty feel about this?

NK: Liberty has control over all of this. If she doesn't like what people are asking her to do, she doesn't do it. Obviously we've spoken about this project and she's quite at ease with the vision of herself clothed and unclothed. She's just had her first child but she's still quite prepared to do this and I think there's a certain amount of power to her for deciding to do this at this point in her life. I know that with all these projects, part of the reason that I do them is because they're close to the edge.

SF: How important is fashion to the project?

NK: Well, it's our collections piece. In the same way that if Vogue did a collections piece or if anybody did a large collections piece they'd look at what was presented in London and Paris and Milan and they'd cut them down into themes. That's what we're doing: presenting nine different themes. Jonathan Kaye has looked at the collections and said, 'well, okay, ecclesiastical is one of the themes that has been picked up by Saint Laurent and by so-and-so, dandy is another one, tomboy's another one.

SF: How will the project actually work?

NK: What happens first is that we've had all the clothes from each theme on SHOWstudio so you can look at ecclesiastical, and the audience is already getting to know the clothes you can dress Liberty in. It's three hours on each theme, three themes a day, for three days.

Say the first theme is dandy or tomboy. First you look at all the clothes for tomboy, then you register yourself as a participant and then you're held in what is almost a chat room where you can talk to other people about what Liberty might wear and Liberty will select who she wants to dress her based on what that person is saying. They have fifteen minutes to dress her and then she goes onto the next one. Jonathan Kaye decides who's done the best combination from each theme and then that's what Liberty wears.

I film Liberty in that outfit and then we deconstruct it. I take all the clothes back off her which is interesting because when you're taking the clothes off they become different garments. A Rochas skirt when it's being lifted above your head, becomes a new piece of clothing. It's not the same skirt. And at different points while that's happening I'm taking freeze frames then Danny Brown, who works with us, is making the sequences into animations based a bit on a pen that you tip upside down and the model's clothes fall off. It won't be as literal as that, though. You can go onto the site, take these patterns, recombine them in a semi abstract way and load them onto your mobile phone. It's quite a long sequence of events.

SF: And it's all live online?

NK: Yes. Yes. Everything's live both with sound and vision.

SF: You were talking about control, this is taking the passive side of modelling to the extreme.

NK:What we're doing is providing the control that a stylist would normally have to our audience. We've chosen a range of clothing from the collections but we're allowing them to combine them so I think what you're going to get is a lot of young, would-be stylists.

SF: There is something about Liberty that is quite brave. She doesn't necessarily want to be portrayed as conventionally pretty. She's prepared to go further than most models.

NK: I think she is very courageous. She's very at ease with how she looks, she's very at ease with her image. And she's interested in pushing that. Not all models are. Not all models are that aware of how they look. Liberty is somebody who intellectually takes on roles. When you're working with her she understands the person you're making her into, not just the looks, but the person, so she portrays that. She's quite at ease so it's a little bit more like working with an actress in a way.

SF: Is that what you like about her? You've worked with her a lot.

NK: I have worked with her a lot. Just taking the actress analogy further, you know, one would work with the same actresses again and again because you enjoy finding out more about their character and putting your vision through them because you know they can use it and they can interpret it. You work with people who are, or you hope are, like-minded to you and are also interested in the type of work you want to do. I work a lot with Gemma Ward. I work a lot with Kate Moss. You work with different girls for different roles. Liberty is quite unique in the way she works.

Showing the process is a much more appropriate way of trying to explain and show how you work. It's beneficial for the artist and beneficial to the audience.

SF: Can we talk about SHOWstudio in general.

NK: We've changed it in the last three or four months because what we're doing is concentrating much more on one project at a time, Previously, we had much more of pop approach to it: we'd approach perhaps twenty projects in a month. We've already been working on this with Liberty for two months and you've seen the development. As I say, it is our collections piece so it's allowed us to talk about the clothes. We asked Jonathan Kaye who's a key designer who you feel epitomises this season and he says okay it's Junya Watanabe, so we've got a Junya Watanabe download, and of course that'll be part of the clothes that Liberty will be wearing. It's a way of doing these projects in a much fuller sense than we used to.

SF: You once described yourself to me as the enemy within. Is that still how you see yourself?

NK: I do try and stay in the mainstream because then you can operate in a much more powerful way. If you try and work from the outside you do just become slightly side-tracked, people will marginalise you and therefore what you say isn't relevant. I think you have to operate in the mainstream.

SF: Do you mean ad campaigns and Vogue?

NK: Yes. If my work only appeared in i-D magazine, or Self Service one would think, well, he's fine but in the overall scheme of fashion nothing's really changing and it's therefore just his particular oddness. If I'm operating in the mainstream then it's very hard to ignore what I do and what I say. It's much easier for me to get my point across.

SF: And how do you do that with your work for Dior, for example?

NK: There are things that you do when you photograph people that people wouldn't notice. For instance, if you look up to a person you are putting them in a position where they are looked up to, if you look down on them you make them look dominated. There are all sorts of things that, although they're very slight, you will do naturally.

You can't have a huge political agenda going way out in front of you that you arrive on a shoot and blast onto a shoot but John knows I don't like photographing fur so we tend to not get much fur on the shoot. It's those sorts of things. It's more a way of looking at the world which my clients understand that I have. John knows I'm interested in performance. He knows I'm interested in the process. So we tend to push things in those sorts of ways. He knows who I am. He knows what I believe in.

SF: Process is very much about what this is about.

NK: I've always thought that there's a certain arrogance to the way pictures are presented or in fact any art form is presented without explanation, without interference, almost as a trophy at the end of a quest. I don't feel like that about my own work. It's an ongoing investigation, an ongoing exploration of the world around us. I don't see it in a final way. So showing the process is a much more appropriate way of trying to explain and show how you work. It's beneficial for the artist and beneficial to the audience.

SF: What's your role in this particular project?

NK: We're broadcasting it as it happens and once Liberty's been dressed by her audience then I will deconstruct her, or undress her and I will produce a series of images. So the role is hard for me to define. I'm part photographer, part film maker, part broadcaster, metteur en scène, it's a directorial role and that's what I find quite exciting at the moment. The move into new technologies made the definition of being a photographer quite irrelevant. I'm making things that are in three dimensions now because of 3-D scanning and conceiving pieces that look more like theatre than they do photography. I'm not so restricted by the role of being a photographer any more which has always been something I haven't particularly enjoyed.

SF: Do you like the separation of the lens being between you and something else?

NK: No. No. In my mind. When I work, I tend to work with a plate camera and you don't look through the back of the camera. You look just to begin with but then you stand next to the model, or next to the sitter, just holding a cable release in your hand. Thinking about what I do now I feel almost freed up from the camera which is an object that I've never liked. I've always felt it's a slightly aggressive piece of machinery that you put between you and your sitter.

SF: Is the relationship between model and photographer equal?

NK: No. I think mostly it's not an equal relationship. That's partly why I've been trying to do with this, by trying to get Liberty to generate her own imagery and by giving her platform from which she can voice her opinions throughout a shoot. Liberty's not participating in the end image in Vogue. For this project, she's made video clips over the past two months of how she sees herself, so the audience has been watching those and getting to know her through the generation of her own images, they've been discovering her as a person. She's been answering their questions. She's been showing visions of herself.

I think for the large part models haven't had much control. They do have a bit more now but not a lot. Even in the day of the supermodel, ultimately they controlled their fees and when they would turn up but still as a photographer, you're a director, you issue a set of instructions. A good model will interpret those instructions and push them back towards you so it becomes like game. More often than not a model is being given a set of instructions. Do this, do that, do this, do that. You listen to the sort of patter a photographer has — I mean different photographers do it in different ways — but most people have a similar sort of thing and it's like a rhythmic set of reassurances, 'yeah, great, good', and so forth. It's all that inane babble which is sort of rhythmically punctuating but also encouraging people to just carry on doing what they're being asked to do.

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