David Knight has experienced plenty of change in his photographic life. The English-born photographer has worked in both Dubai and Australia.
He was trained in traditional photographic techniques only to then watch digital imaging slowly but surely replace film. And, in his chosen field of advertising photography, budgets have shrunk and a bit of smart software has taken over from time-consuming camera work, set-building and creative problem-solving. At the same time he’s been steadily trying to spend more time on personal projects, an area he confesses to having let slip for too long as he worked hard to get established as an advertising photographer in Australia.
Now, David says, the value of pursuing personal work cannot be underestimated as it helps with the development of a style which, in turn, informs a photographer’s commercial work.
“For a number of years there I had really neglected my own stuff and I was focused just on the advertising work. But I was having withdrawal symptoms so I had to get back to it. My advertising work didn’t really have a set style; it was just whatever the job required so I was a bit of a chameleon there. These days I’m trying to work more on my own stuff and hopefully getting awarded jobs where people are looking at my personal work and wanting to buy into that style. So, I think that, with time, my style will become more and more defined. I find it more rewarding and I feel a lot more invested in my work.”
David also believes that – no pun intended – the wide exposure of personal work is also important so he maintains a Website, but also employs ‘old-school’ promotional strategies such as sending out printed material. He also participates in photography awards, both locally and internationally, most recently making it into Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Born a bit further up the River Thames at Oxford, the young David Knight wanted to be an artist, but then his mind was rapidly changed by the realisation that at career in fine-art would almost certainly involve teaching, a prospect that filled him with dread.
“One of my friend’s father was my art teacher and I remember, one day sitting, sitting under a tree with this friend – probably smoking –when we saw this man jumping around trying grab branches off another tree.Then my mate suddenly said, ‘Shit, that’s my Dad!’. He was collecting stuff for an art class and, there and then, I decided that that was something I definitely didn’t want to do.
“The thought of teaching absolutely terrified me so I began thinking about what else I could do that would still allow me to be visually creative. Then, at the end of my art course, there was a bit of photography and I think, like many people probably, I was absolutely hooked when I first watched a print developing in the tray. I thought it was magic and I never looked back from there.
“I then went to the Cheltenham & Gloucester College – there were two big vocational colleges in England at the time and it was one of them – and I chose there because it was a very structured course and they were specifically gearing you up to find work, either as an advertising photographer or an editorial photographer. A lot of the degree courses at the time were very arts based and weren’t so focused on teaching you how to use cameras or lighting.
“I was there for a couple of years, then I did the usual freelance assisting thing and then I got a full time job with a couple of photographers. One was Ian Fraser who was an all-round commercial photographer, but he was doing a lot of cars. And the other was Ben Campbell who was more people-focused and he was doing quite edgy fashion stuff. So I got experience in a good mix of things. Both were quite technical and loved the craft of photography which was a very good training.”
This was still in the days of film… “Digital wasn’t around at all at that point”. David was using roll film and 4x5-inch sheet film so he remains a “big camera” person and says that even for his personal work his approach is still “more considered” as learned from many years of using a Sinar view camera.
Chasing The Sun
Like many aspiring young Britons in the mid-1990s, David began to look beyond the shores of his homeland for somewhere he could get established professionally, although he says that his choice of Dubai was mainly influenced by the appeal of a warmer climate.
“England is bloody cold in winter. Basically all my friends had left and gone to other places and I was living in a share house and so one particularly freezing day I thought there’s got to be somewhere warmer. My sister was living in Dubai so I went there for a holiday. I didn’t like it much at first, but back in England, I was encouraged by Ben – who’d grown up in Bahrain – to give it a go so I did.
“Initially I offered to assist, but within six months I was shooting on my own, there was just so much work around. And it was very diverse too. You’d be hanging out of a helicopter one day, the next on a tug in the port and then you’d be working with a creative director from one of the major advertising agencies. You had to wear many hats which made it quite fun. And then, of course, there were the mountains and the desert right on your doorstep with all these fabulous places you could go and explore. And you could still really drive wherever you liked then so it was a great time both personally and professionally.”
David worked in Dubai for nearly four years, before deciding to move on… this time to Australia.
“Again,” he confesses, “the main reason wasn’t really anything to do with career advancement, but if I’d stayed I would have had to find a sponsor and get set up myself which required a big investment in both time and money.
And it was a very transient place so it’s hard to feel settled there and I was really ready to go anyway. Australia was on the top of the list because I’d always wanted to go there.”
Gaining a foothold in a well-established market that’s also quite small and reasonably close-knit must have been something of a challenge.
“Yes, I think it was although, compared to Dubai, Australia seemed like a massive place. In Dubai it was sufficient to go to the pub, chat to a few people and the grapevine would do the rest. At that time, everybody knew everybody. So, when I came here, I decided to get an agent to help get me work and then, a bit later, I dispensed with having an agent and instead had a freelance producer which worked very well for me for a couple of years. But, yes, it was hard initially to break in.”
David selected a vocational training course over an arts degree because he wanted to understand the
‘nuts and bolts’ of his chosen profession and to be able to operate a viable business. So he always intended to
be a commercial photographer and advertising work appealed in particular.
“I like having control,” he states simply. “I like to set things up. I like to construct a photograph and with an advertising shoot everybody is on the payroll basically. So there’s a great team spirit where everybody is working towards the same thing. You don’t need to cajole people into doing what you want because everybody is there for one purpose which is great. And while I have been moving more towards the art side, I’m certainly not going to stop doing advertising. Hopefully they’ll compliment each other and keep me inspired for longer… and hopefully they’ll be a crossover of ideas back into advertising.”
He’s become more convinced of the need for a distinctive and definable style as the nature of advertising photography has changed significantly, for both technological and economic reasons.
“There’s been a convergence of things going on. Firstly, we’ve transitioned nearly fully from film to digital, but there were a few years there where things were basically in limbo and it wasn’t really clear where we would go… so you didn’t know where to put your money as far as making big investments in gear was concerned. It was quite a relief when digital imaging got to the point of being, in commercial photography terms, the benchmark.
“Then there’s been a gradual reduction in budgets every year. The eighties and the early nineties were synonymous with massive budgets – almost the champagne era if you like – and I came in at the end of this and pretty much missed the whole thing! But budgets were certainly a lot healthier at the start of my career and they’ve been getting leaner as the years go by. Not that I feel it quite as much because, of course, as you do get older and more experienced you do get some bigger jobs. But I’m sure that 15 years ago we’d have been making three or four times as much money.
“Retouching has added another element in that why would you allow a photographer to absolutely perfect something over two or three days – as a car photographer in a studio would once have done – when two minutes on the computer will fix the problem?
“So, if you don’t bear this in mind, you just won’t get the job in the first place… it’s just a commercial.
Willing Convert Despite his darkroom ‘revelation’ and training in film based photography, David Knight says he was a fairly willing convert to digital capture once it could deliver enough image quality.
“My first introduction to it was back in Dubai when we had a Phase One salesman come and give us a demo, and that would have been all the way back in 1996. Very early days, and really the only application for it was studio ‘churn and burn’ product photography where the images were only going to end up small.
“So it really wasn’t ready at that point, but I understood the concept of it so I did jump in with some early Canon cameras, although the quality wasn’t there. For me, it finally became viable when Canon brought out the EOS-1Ds Mark II – the 16 megapixels camera – and I bought one of those and first started shooting personal work with it, but then I used it for some commercial jobs and the results were pretty good. But I didn’t become fully committed until I bought a Hasselblad H2 four years ago.”
So, given how much can now be done on a computer – and with more to come with CGI – on balance has digital imaging been a good or a bad thing for advertising photography?
“For a while I was on the fence, but I think that, overall, it’s been fantastic. Ultimately, it’s just another method of recording an image and most of the work is still done in front of the camera with the composition and the lighting, and how you direct if you have talent in the shot. Whether it’s film or it’s digital, if you haven’t done all those other things right, it’s immaterial anyway. And I think everybody forgets, as well, that for quite a while film was scanned and put into the computer and worked on in exactly the same way. But I understand that some people still favour film because it’s obviously got a different look and perhaps it’ll
make a resurgence because of this, particularly on the art side. For me, though, the commercial realities are obvious, starting from just knowing that you’ve got the shot, knowing when to stop shooting and having the client sign it off there and then.”
David contends that having a strong photographic ‘identity’ is important in the advertising world, especially in terms of photographers being able to play a key role in the creative process rather than simply being directed.
“Well, you would hope that a client has already bought into what you do by seeing your work, so perhaps the discussions about creative direction don’t need to be had quite as much. This is definitely where having a more united voice or a clearer style helps… if your work is similar and consistent throughout, the clients come to you for that look.”
Which, presumably, is why self-promotion is so important so your work is seen frequently and so potential clients understand what you’re all about and how you shoot.
“Absolutely, but I neglected this for years. I think I was probably too busy shooting and not really thinking about it, but what I realised, I think, was that if you want to get a certain type of work – and you want to drive your career in a certain direction – then you really have to take the lead and you have to be very clear yourself about what it is that you’re doing so that other people can see that. Hopefully, the work will follow in that direction and, of course, you’ll be a lot happier with your work because you’ve driven it to an area you want to be doing.”
Having weathered the many changes in photography over the last 20 years and still managed to be successful in two very different markets, David Knight says he still has plenty of creative goals that he’d like to achieve. Not surprisingly, one of them is to be able to do more personal work, but still get paid.
“I suppose the very act of supporting yourself by doing what you love is a good thing… and not so many people truly, truly enjoy their work. But my ultimate goal – and it’s probably the goal of most photographers – would be to find a way to still make money only working on your own projects or on those you really wanted to do. And I’d like to have more time to do personal things… like riding around the world on a motorbike.”