Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell in 3-D: The art of photographic sculpture

Editor’s Note: This week, British photographer Nick Knight joins CNN Style as a contributing editor. He’s commissioned a series of features around the theme of fashion film and photography.

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Nick Knight has joined CNN Style as a contributing editor

The British photographer has worked with fashion, music and art's biggest names

Knight discusses photographic sculpture: a new art form that has many possibilities

CNN  — 

Photographic sculpture – I even like the name; it’s made up of two well known and traditional words, both of which conjure up imagery of great art from the past, be it Brassai, Rodin, Avedon or Bernini.

But this is a new art form, totally of our age and as yet undefined and undeveloped. It is just one of what will be a gigantic wave of new art forms that will emerge from the Internet.

This particular art form came from the worlds of engineering and medicine – exciting parents to have. I came across it about 17 years ago and fell in love with the idea straight away.

What is photographic sculpture?

Simply explained, photographic sculpture starts with a 3-D scan of the subject and ends with a physical sculpture printed out (or sintered) using the data of the scan.

The reason I call it photographic sculpture is that when I scan my model, I use exactly the same approach as when I photograph someone. The same direction, the same search for shape and form, the same desire to portray their emotion, but I don’t end up with a two dimensional photograph, I end up with an object.

This object has been created using all the language of photography, such as multiple exposure, depth of field and so on. It is retouched in Photoshop the same way one would a photographic image.

This is a photograph as sculpture - I haven’t chiselled away at a block of marble or pushed huge chunks of clay into forms. I have used every skill I would as a photographer, yet the end result is a physical object.

I have scanned some of the women in my life that I love, respect and find fascinating. Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Liberty Ross and Daphne Guinness, for example - all important women, strong women and women who shape our visual culture.

An early question you have to consider when making a sculpture is what material to work with: what should Daphne Guinness be made from? Alabaster? Orbicular Jasper? Titanium? Wax?

This thought process is new to me and the research into new materials is only just starting. Apart from the classic materials like bronze or marble, I have new options that are so modern we only see their use in high performance sports technology or being used by NASA.

But, to me, the most exciting and by far the oddest option is the possibility to actually print in living matter - look at the now well known medical advances in printing out organs. Although the immediate reaction might be repulsion, the possibility of sculpting in living matter sets the mind racing. Imagine saying to Jacob Epstein or Henry Moore they could do that.

The 25-foot-tall supermodel

The first sculpture I made was a 25-foot-tall white polystyrene triple exposure of Naomi Campbell, based loosely on Warhol’s ‘3 Elvis’ in form.

I have always liked the sculptures we see in our cities of people who are deemed important culturally and historically, usually military leaders (whose statues now pose many ethical problems). Although I like their form and their inclusion in our lives, what I like the most is how they get covered in graffiti!

I like it because in a way it feels like people taking back the power and having their own voice. I love what this says more than just seeing the arrogance of a man on a pedestal - seeing him covered in graffiti in some way makes me feel better about the world around me.

My sculpture was displayed in a darkened gallery, during the SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution exhibition at Somerset House in London, and an online version was put on my website.

People from all across the globe could draw or write on the version online and whatever they wrote was then projected in real time onto the sculpture in the gallery.

So, you could be standing in the gallery and the words from someone in New York would appear written across Naomi’s form in front of your eyes, then someone in Paris would draw across them and then someone else in Japan would write on those.

In the gallery there was also a keypad and you could write on Naomi from there, thus starting a global conversation. Naomi in effect became a canvas for people’s thoughts.

The sculpture being Naomi meant the thoughts were in some way pertinent to her or at least shaped by it being her. Imagine how different it would be if the statue had been of say Hilary Clinton, Chairman Mao or Kim Kardashian.

The sculpture was on display for 4 months and despite my great fear to begin with that it would be daubed with vile racist graffiti, not one racist comment was written.

This alone lifted my heart and spirits. There were a fair few penises, but conversely a lot of people wrote long well thought through statements and a lot of people just used her as a canvas to color in and create beauty. A bit like a 3 dimensional coloring book.

Kate Moss: A fallen angel?

The second sculpture is of Kate Moss. Here I was interested in using the far more traditional language of religious icons.

I believe that in many ways religious icons have been replaced by fashion images. They are adored by masses of people, and in these times where structured religion seems to stand more for negative values than positive, people still want to look to something to adore and even worship, be it on billboards rather than the ceilings of cathedrals.

A sculpture of Kate Moss by Nick Knight

I wanted to find a material that I felt appropriate for this and decided to work with one of the finest porcelain makers in the world, Nyphenburg in Germany. The Nyphenburg pottery, situated just outside of Munich and attached to a Royal Palace, is incidentally one of the most beautiful - in a fairytale sense of the word - buildings I have been to!

Porcelain was known as ‘white gold’ in 16th Century Europe, and was regarded as the most precious and refined of all materials - fitting I felt for someone as exquisitely beautiful as Kate.

I scanned Kate naked, other than a cloth wrapped around her hips, with her arms stretched out in a classical religious pose. I then scanned the outstretched wings of a dove and positioned them on Kate’s shoulders, immediately transforming her into an angel.

I have always been amazed that occasionally there is such venom directed towards Kate - she is essentially just a beautiful woman, who, like many people, likes to enjoy herself and party.

Why did she merit the continual and savage pursuit of a pack of paparazzi hounding her every movement for over 10 years? I feel this says something about us as a society and reinforces the connection I believe fashion has to religion.

In short, depicting Kate as an angel, fallen or otherwise, seemed to me fitting.

The sculpture itself is an object of total beauty. I was incredibly moved when seeing it for the first time. The potters at Nyphenberg are the most skilled craftspeople.

They sculpted Kate from the data I had provided, which is essentially a direct mathematical and optical recording of her form.

The people at Nyphenburg created the beauty that I would bring in my lighting. They also, in their own way, emulated the make-up artist’s shading and the-retouchers smoothing, things that are essential to an image on the front of a magazine.

This was sculpture using the language of fashion photography. When we host our live panel broadcasts on SHOWstudio, I am often part of discussions that pose the question as to what is luxury today.

Bringing together the incredibly fine craftsmanship of Nyphenberg and the most modern scanning techniques felt in some way that this was one answer to that question. Over the last decade and a half this new art form has been my continual source of happiness.

I love the fact that it is new, and as yet has virtually no set parameters - it remains undefined. What is most exciting is that it feels like a bridge into a new world, where art looks and behaves in ways we are only just starting to discover.

Our future art will be rich and as inspiring as anything else we have ever created. I say that with certainty as I have a deep trust in the inventiveness of the human mind. Photographic sculpture is the beginning of a totally new age in art when all the traditional boundaries between the arts crumble and vanish.

And that thrills me!

Nick Knight is the founder of SHOWstudio, a website championing fashion film and moving image.