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Muddy meets: iconic photographer Nick Knight

He's worked with everyone from Alexander McQueen and John Galliano to Lady Gaga and Kanye West - so it's a surprise to find photography genius Nick Knight's newest exhibition is of flowers shot from his garden and showing at Waddesdon Manor! Blooming heck Nick, what's going on?

After lockdown put paid to the original March launch date of Nick Knight’s Roses from my Garden exhibition at Waddesdon Manor in Bucks, we’re overjoyed to finally be able to clap eyes on the pieces this month.

To celebrate, we got a chance to chat to Nick about shooting artwork on an iPhone, creating films for Kanye, bad tattoos and what he grows in his garden.

Nick Knight - portrait by Britt Lloyd
Image by Britt Lloyd

Thank you for speaking to us today over Zoom! How have you been finding the constant video calls?

It is a very strange way to communicate, but I feel that we’re all finding our feet – I spend every day on Zoom calls now. I’ve even been photographing on video calls, I shot a Vogue story on Zoom that’s coming out later this week! This is our medium now.

Vogue August 2020 cover shot by Nick Knight, available 3 July

How has lockdown been treating you?

Well I presumed that I wasn’t going to be able to work initially, so the first thing I did was dig up part of my garden and plant a vegetable patch. I started growing leeks, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, which gave me an enormous amount of pleasure. Of course, I’m now doing more work in lockdown than I was beforehand!

Speaking of the garden, your new exhibition does what it says on the tin, in that it’s exclusively images of roses you planted. Which varieties are your favourites?

Image by Nick Knight

I chose them more or less to be photogenic – they’re mostly David Austin roses, who was a fantastic rose grower, so they’re very fragrant as well. There’s one particularly beautiful one called Lark Ascending, which I can always count on. The ones I stay away from are red roses, because red is a notoriously hard colour to manipulate.

What about the rest of the garden?

Well it’s a courtyard garden – my house is a very beautiful concrete and glass creation by David Chipperfield, and it wraps around a courtyard where I keep all my roses, so they’re an explosion of colour against the dark grey basalt. The rest of the garden is ivy and white silver birches, because I wanted something low maintenance, but we often get bluebells and white daffodils in the spring.

Why photograph roses?

My relationship with roses started a long time ago. My mother’s middle name was Rose, which is a slightly spiritual coincidence, and I had a tattoo in my teenage years – the only tattoo I have – of a rose. I started photographing roses back in 1993 as part of a permanent exhibition at The Natural History Museum and fell in love with them.

There’s a beautiful, tragic poetry to the rose that rather endeared me to it – it becomes its most splendid just before it dies. It reminded me of romantic poetry of the 17th and 18th century.

The tattoo sounds intriguing! Has your photography work inspired you to add to it?

Well I’m quite embarrassed by it because it’s a really bad tattoo, and I’m not going to show it to you! I got it as a youthful rebellion – I originally wanted a black cat, but the tattooist wasn’t very good and told me to pick something off the wall instead, so I chose a rose. I know a lot of really good tattooist now, and tattoos have come a long way since then, but I don’t want another one, and certainly not my own work on me. I don’t even have my own work in my house!

Would you ever photograph another type of flower?

I’m very monogamous to roses, actually – I don’t photograph tulips, or daises or daffodils. They’re not for me.

So tell us about how you went about capturing the images we see here.

I started photographing roses on my iPhone about 6 or 7 years ago and posting them on Instagram. It took me back to just that simple pleasure of creating images – one of the reasons I got into photography in the first place. It freed me up from all the paraphernalia of photography; the lights, the stands, the leads. I’m not a lover of all that stuff.

Why Instagram?

I like Instagram because it’s a medium of our time, and I like the iPhone because it’s the camera of our time. The last forty years or so I’ve been working, we’ve been living through a big change in how we create imagery. I started off wanting to be a photographer in a classic sense, with a camera and film, and then the digital revolution of the 1990s changed everything. In fact I don’t even call myself a photographer anymore – it’s not really an appropriate name for the things that I do – so I’ve taken on the moniker of ‘image-maker’.

So you wouldn’t call these images photographs?

Not essentially, no – they’re a new thing. The main place we see imagery now is the internet, where it used to be books and magazines, so I was trying to find an art form that reflected the texture of the internet, the texture of digital media.

And you just used your phone?

iPhones are really very good – not that I want to do an advert for Apple here, but I can’t really get around it! – they’re very good at picking up light levels, and they make the files very easy to manipulate and to change. Digital image-making is a craft, and it’s coming up in much the same way as photography came up.

So how did you go from your personal Instagram to turning your images into an exhibition?

I was quite happy photographing the roses when I wasn’t working, and it seemed to go down quite well on Instagram. I have a little audience there, and one of them was (art dealer and gallery director) Michael Hue-Williams’s wife, Ali. She saw the pictures and brought them to her husband’s attention, and he asked me if I wanted a summer exhibition at Albion Barn.

I imagine you jumped at the chance!

Of course, it’s one of the major art galleries in the world, so I was very honoured to be asked! It felt like a very appropriate place to show my roses – because where else would you want to show pictures of roses, other than a garden in Oxfordshire? So that went ahead last year, but we obviously had to make the jump from my iPhone to printed and on a wall.

I’d never looked at printing the files that big, and when I did I wasn’t happy with the result, so I did some investigating and came across software called Gigapixel AI from Topaz Labs, which uses artificial intelligence to sharpen and enhance the image. It gives them an entirely new texture.

In what way?

Image by Nick Knight

If you go close to a Tina Modotti or a Steichen photograph of roses, you’ll see the photographic grain. If you went close to a Jan Brueghel, you’d see brushstrokes. I went close to these and discovered a new patina, a new structure that I’d never seen before. It felt entirely modern – it looked a bit like painting, a bit digital. There was something brutal in it. What I love about these is that when you stand back, they look painterly, but when you go close they are so modern, they’re on the cutting edge.

This is very different from your fashion and music work, which people will know you for. Are they different artistic processes for you?

Most of my work, happily, is with other people. If I’m working with Riccardo Tisci at Burberry or Kanye West or John Galliano, it’s a conversation and a collaboration, and I very much enjoy that. Part of the privilege of doing what I do is to be able to get inside the heads of some the greatest artists of our time. Roses is a very solitary, meditative thing – although I do always ask my wife her opinion about which to post, out of the 300 images I’ve just shot!

Does that conversation sometimes turn nasty?

Well, photography was never very good at reflecting reality. At it’s best, it’s about the opinion of the photographer, and so people will look at a photograph and see two different images. I was working for a French fashion house for a perfume campaign, and I was given carte blanche to create an image, so I brought the CEO what I thought was a picture of an angel. He took one look at it, slammed his fists down on the desk and asked, “Why have you brought me a picture of a whore?” He wasn’t wrong, because that was his interpretation of it, but it was a scary moment – it said a lot about him. He’s no longer the CEO of that company, incidentally.

How are the fashion houses you work with coping with lockdown?

Well, for the last 20 years at SHOWStudio I’ve been saying that the catwalk and the fashion show is not the best way to show fashion, and we should look at more sustainable alternatives, and lo and behold, the lockdown means that we can no longer have gatherings. So I’ve been working with some very important fashion houses over the last three months to produce a way of talking about fashion which is outside of the catwalk. Fashion is an awful polluter, and there is a desire now to address that. So lockdown has had an affect on my work in a very surprising way.

Tell us about your project with Kanye West last year.

He holds – or used to hold – sessions called the Sunday Service, where he would get together with a 50-piece gospel choir for an invite-only event every Sunday to create music. He wanted to do a live Sunday Service broadcast from the Arizona desert, from the artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, an extinct volcano that he’s turned into a light installation. So I went down there to do this live broadcast – turns out you can’t broadcast from the middle of the Arizona desert! So I stayed four days and we ended up creating a film instead, which became Jesus is King. I was quite moved by the whole experience, it was quite mind-blowing and hard not to feel spiritual in a place like that.

How can we see the film?

It was originally launched in IMAX cinemas for a week only, but we’ve since been inundated with requests to put it elsewhere. Keep your eye on Apple Music!

You can see Nick Knight’s Roses from my Garden at Waddesdon Manor from Sat 4 July. Pre-booking is essential.

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