Is traditional fashion photography finished?

New technology is shaking things up in style photography. Philippa Warr speaks to legendary photographer Nick Knight about the radical shifts taking place.

"Fashion photography has changed."

World-famous image-maker Nick Knight is telling me how smartphones and advances in image-editing apps are fundamentally altering his line of work, perhaps even rendering traditional fashion photography obsolete. Technological advances are opening up image capture and manipulation to a wider audience, enabling big budget effects on everyday devices, while behind the scenes the power balance between model and magazine is shifting.

Knight makes a case for photography − as we understand it − being over. His point is that it used to be relatively straightforward. "The image-making I do now is no longer defined by any of those parameters," he says "I've argued strongly for the last ten years or more that we have to say photography is finished − it isn't the medium we use anymore."

Of course, photography still exists, but for Knight it's no longer the medium we turn to when we want to communicate visually. "There's a new medium called image-making which behaves in a completely different way, is done by completely different equipment and is expressed in completely different chemicals and minerals."

He's referring to devices like smartphones and applications like Instagram, which allow for near-instant image editing; and can be shared immediately with a massive global audience.

"Accessible yet still magical," is how Justin Cooke describes Instagram and the work which appears on it. Cooke is now CEO of the agency Innovate7 but used to work as vice president of PR at Burberry. He was part of a team who met with Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram. Adoption of the app by Burberry while Instagram was still up-and-coming was vital in keeping the brand ahead of the competition, according to Cooke.

"Instagram was one of those apps that come up every so often like Twitter or Glitché or Mega Photo that allows you to do at the click of a button what before would have taken a long time," says Knight. "I like it because I'm not someone whose primary way of expressing themself is through writing."

Back to the future

The imagery Knight now creates is often shot directly on his iPhone and then run through a selection of image-editing apps − the aforementioned Mega Photo and Glitché being favourites − or traditional Photoshop (as with his beautiful images seen in the catalogue of Somerset House in London’s exhibtion Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!). Knight’s images are then uploaded to his Instagram account.

"It took me back, in a weird way, to the beginnings of my love of photography in the 1970s. I could create something from the world around me, but of course you have to go through the whole process of having the film developed, printing it in the darkroom and finding somewhere to show it. That bit has been super-accelerated."

This acceleration suits the internet well. As Knight points out, most people get their style information online now, and that makes it the most appropriate medium for publishing fashion images − far more so than traditional magazines. Clothes are ultimately designed with movement in mind – and the possibilities of image-making – and video −stretch beyond those offered in print.

Out of print?

The changing nature of fashion photography, and photography in general, will affect traditional practitioners and has (unsurprisingly) been met with resistance from some. "There's a certain amount of very understandable reluctance," says Knight. "Where there is a sense of fear is from people who are going to be put out of work by it or who are going to have to change their way of thinking" − magazine promoters, for example, whose job it is to lionise print.

Models, however, stand to benefit greatly from the changes. Traditionally models have been beholden to magazines for work and for exposure but at this point Cara Delevingne has over three million followers on her Instagram account; Kim Kardashian has eleven million.

"I don't think it's sunk in to the models yet but they have the balance of power now," says Knight. "That power shift is something that's fundamental and will change how we perceive people and how the whole system operates." Once the power shift is understood the models will likely have a very different relationship with the fashion publications that sell perhaps a couple of hundred thousand copies. "The models can say, 'Wait a minute, by a factor of a hundred you should be working for me'. So it changes things a lot."

What are the limitations of smartphone photography? As an enthusiast and an earlier adopter Knight has had time to critically assess the options available through the App Store and elsewhere. I ask what, in an ideal world, he would like to add to his current smartphone toolkit. The answer, surprisingly, goes back to traditional photography.

"The default [on smartphones] is a wide angle lens − that's fine for certain sorts of photography or certain sorts of image making. You can see why people did it: 'I want to take a picture of my friend sitting in the car seat opposite me and if I've got a wide-angle lens I can get most of my friend in’." But it's not ideal for all situations and can also create distortions.

Knight's observation highlights just how young this medium is. There is a plentiful supply of apps designed to paper over the limitations of smartphone cameras and even more which achieve effects and circulation boosts either impossible or hugely time consuming with traditional cameras. But there are also technical developments needed − for example, in the realms of lens-making − before the full extent of the repercussions on traditional fashion photography can be known.

As Knight sees it, the image making we have now is an area ripe for invention and marked by the capacity for innovation. As he says, "It hasn't defined itself yet."

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