The fashion photographer and lingerie designer who are redefining beauty

Nick Knight: I’m trying to get people to see photography not just as an end in itself but as a way into a different way of creating things. I have used the same skill set that I use to make a photograph to make this sculpture: emotion, design, collaboration. I hope it will make people think about why, at a photography fair, we have proposed a sculptural piece.

I’ve been doing 3D scanning since 1999. I’ve scanned everyone from Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to Daphne Guinness and Lady Gaga. Nowadays, it’s relevant to the idea of the metaverse — in order to make an avatar of someone you need to 3D scan them. Virtual reality is fascinating to me because it’s about creating a new world and a better world. We shouldn’t be presenting new technologies in a fearful, doom-and-gloom kind of way.

Starting out, I didn’t naturally have great skills as a sculptor or a painter, but photography is, in a way, a mechanical process: the image you get when you pick up a camera is pretty good. It’s not like someone has handed you a block of marble and a chisel and said “Get going!”. So photography was quite an easy-access medium for me. When you’re working in photography, you also realise that it’s not the medium itself that’s important, it’s what you’re trying to say.

Photography allows you into any situation in life. It enabled me to photograph skinhead gangs back in the 1970s and the Queen of England with Prince Charles a couple of years ago. I used to say I was interested in photographing people on the margins of society, but then I realised that, when you get to know them, everybody’s on the margins of society. And there is beauty in everybody, you just have to want to see it. But it’s true that I tend to be attracted to people who the media or the overall culture tend to ignore; people who don’t fit in.

An exclusive first look at a work in progress: Michaela Stark, Dodo wang and Jade O’Belle, ‘Composition I’, 2022 © Nick Knight

I spent a lot of my early career reacting against what the fashion industry was saying was beautiful. One of the projects that typifies this is one I did with the late Alexander McQueen where we photographed people with quite pronounced physical disabilities and different body shapes. We made images of them that were just as aspirational as if we were photographing the top models of the day. The language of aspiration we use in fashion photography — such as having your camera low so you’re looking up at the model, a sign of respect — creates a sense of desire in the viewer. You want to be that person in the picture, or to be in their world, or just to know them.

There has been a painfully narrow acceptance of what constitutes beauty. The fashion industry, on the whole, has been very bad at showing people of different skin colours, ethnicities, ages and body types. It is starting to change; there are lots of brands, like Balenciaga, who are working in a more interesting and inclusive way.

Sophie Dahl, photographed for i-D magazine, 1997 © Nick Knight

I find a lot of the talent we work with on Instagram. It’s maligned as a platform for selfies, but actually it’s a very direct way of finding the talent rather than, say, going through modelling agencies. One of the artists I found that way a few years ago was Michaela Stark; I was fascinated by how she was playing with her own body shape and that of her sitters. It was a vision of female forms that isn’t often seen.

Part of the reason why I wanted to create this sculpture is that a lot of how we look at beauty is still based on old Greek statues. In the sculpture, you have these glorious-looking women bursting out of this solid cube and wrapping themselves around it in a beautiful orbit.

In terms of Michaela’s aesthetic, I think she’s in love with a certain shape of woman — a shape that some people reject. But she glorifies it and makes it look splendid, in the same way that Rubens does. She uses her skills as a fashion designer to create these garments that push and change the shape of the body.

Sara Morrison, British Vogue, 1997 © Nick Knight

When we were shooting, there was a moment when I saw one of the models, Jade O’Belle, standing there in the studio waiting for the lighting to be tweaked, wearing just a corset, and I thought, “Why have I never seen this before? Why have I never seen a woman in the environment of a fashion studio who looks like this?” It feels surprisingly new; it shouldn’t do and I’m a bit ashamed that it does. The models looked incredible — and that’s exactly what Michaela picks up on, too.

Michaela Stark: Nick and I had a lot of conversations about how we wanted this sculpture to challenge ideals of beauty, but in a way that is still beautiful. That’s how it challenges you, because you question why you find it beautiful.

My work does adhere to some standards of beauty, but I like to accentuate the body so much that it gets a bit surreal, and that’s when it starts challenging those standards. I accentuate the stomach a lot; I accentuate asymmetrical boobs, but in a delicate way. My work can be very intense to wear because a) it is proper corsetry, and b) it’s exposing so many parts of your body and really transforming the way that you look.

There’s a freedom in distortion, I think. On the first day of the shoot with Nick, I was so naked. For the entire day, I was just wearing a corset with my boob out, no underwear or anything. But when I’m wearing one of my pieces and it’s distorting my body, it doesn’t feel like I’m naked — you feel kind of strapped in and comfortable. Also, it feels like you’re putting on a show. When I put the corset on, I’m stepping into another body and into a completely different role.

‘Self Portrait’, 2020 © Michaela Stark

But still, the days of scanning were very, very long. We tried out so many different concepts, so many different ways of showing the body in a 3D scan. The days started at 8am and went until 10.30pm, 11.00pm, midnight. It was intense but a lot of fun.

The models Jade O’Belle, Dodo Potato and I wore archive pieces that I’d designed for myself and for them. They’re two models I’ve worked with often in the past. We were put into the corsetry slowly because it takes time for your body to adjust to it. But still, I know what my limit is in a corset and I was at that limit all day. We had to hold poses for six minutes, and if you shake you have to go back over the body to scan it again, so you have to hold really, really still. And not only that, but in some poses I was twisting my body as much as I could. At the start, you’d be like, “This is great”. Then they’d start recording and it would be like, “Oh, my god, I feel sick. I don’t know how I’m going to hold this.”

I love to be able to spend time on a project. We took three days to do the scans for the sculpture and to experiment and adjust things, rather than it being a standard one-day shoot. Nick and I had been discussing the project for a while, so it didn’t feel like either of us was having to go with the other one’s vision. It felt like a genuine artistic project between two people. Nick obviously has such a strong vision himself, and the project is ultimately his, but on the set, on the day, he was so respectful of the relationship that I have built up with the models and the way that I see my own artwork.

I come from Brisbane, Australia, which has a big beach culture, and specifically a suburb called West End, which is very free. You can walk about naked and no one is going to say much. But, at the same time, because I grew up in “bikini culture” in Australia and I didn’t grow up super skinny — I was a lot bigger than my friends — I developed insecurities around my body. I’d always be wearing high-waisted skirts that hid my stomach, and button-up tops all the way up to my neck because of the size of my boobs. It was kind of a vibe, but it was also just me feeling insecure.

From the ‘Second Skin’ collection, 2021 © Michaela Stark

When I started out as an artist, my practice was about me and a lot of the things I felt insecure about, and accentuating and putting them on show to celebrate them. It made me feel so liberated. I started getting inspiration from the body positivity movement, and realised that there was a community out there and that I could see the beauty of these other people. That also started making me accept myself.

I think the body positivity movement is about showing the body in a natural way and celebrating it for what it is. But my work is about creating a fantasy and making the natural parts of you bigger and louder and beautiful, but no longer within the realms of reality.

I’m often both the artist and the model in my work. I see modelling as an art form. My artistry really developed out of me modelling my own pieces. I’m not just the creative behind the scenes but the person in front of the camera, so I can connect with the other models and understand what they’re going through on set and how far I can push them to get the picture I want, without pushing them so far that it becomes exploitative or they’re not enjoying it any more.

I often call myself my own muse. But, for this project, I took inspiration from myself and my models, and we were Nick’s muses as well. Everything we did on set, he took it and built this beautiful sculpture and it was completely different from what I could have imagined. So my muses were myself, Jade, Dodo and Nick as well, because I was thinking, “What’s his world? What does he like? What is he trying to build?”

From the ‘Second Skin’ collection, 2021 © Michaela Stark

People have this misconception that the “male gaze” is exclusive to men and the “female gaze” is exclusive to women, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. The female gaze is more about sensitivity and understanding the emotions behind your subject and being able to capture that in an image. Whereas the male gaze is maybe more about the sexuality and physical attributes of a subject. I’ve worked with male photographers, Nick included, who are really able to tap into that female gaze and create emotional work. And vice versa: I’ve met female photographers where I feel like I’m being captured by the male gaze much more than with some male photographers. So I don’t think it’s exclusive to gender, and I also think that people can swap between the two. For me, the best photographs incorporate a little bit of both.

I think Nick did a beautiful job of capturing the essence of my work and of Jade and Dodo; you can see our personalities in the sculpture.

He didn’t just focus on the body. He focused on us as people.

About the artists

Nick Knight is Master of Photography at this year’s Photo London. Since his first photo book, 1982’s “Skinhead”, he has photographed the Queen, directed music videos for Björk, Lady Gaga and Kanye West, and worked with Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and the architect David Chipperfield.

Michaela Stark is a London-based Australian artist, designer and model whose innovative lingerie explores issues of beauty, sexuality and body dysmorphia, working with Beyoncé, Christian Louboutin and Cartier. For Photo London, she has collaborated with Nick Knight and models Jade O’Belle and Dodo Potato on a nine-foot sculpture made using 3D scanning technology.

Photo London is at Somerset House from May 12 to 15,

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