INTERVIEW WITH FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER, ART DIRECTOR AND VISUAL ARTIST NIK PATE
Professional fashion photographer, art director and visual artist – Nik Pate has created eye-catching visual; combining imagination and fashion, framing dreams in time. Never could his mum know that her little boy, who used to play amongst the curiosities under her Moroccan ceiling, would become the man who makes imagination real.
You live and work in London? What’s it like for a photographer there?
London is one of those love it or hate it cities, for me it’s a very complicated relationship. Like any city it’s a gorgeous mix of cultures, possibilities and promises. For most creatives it’s the ideal environment to explore ideas and learn your craft without fear of limitations. London has an abundance of great galleries, museums, cinemas and theatres, everything is here to be experienced – you just have to know what you want to get from it. The people I have met here have definitely shaped my work. My style and sensibilities towards my work have remained constant. But the opportunities and people that this city presented has enabled me to constantly build and improve my practice. The physical city itself, the architecture and environment, is so thick with history and drama that it’s hard not to be influenced.
Where and when did you start as a photographer?
My interest in photography didn’t really start until my final year at art college. Up to then I was strictly film and theatre production design, creating sets and environments for characters to exist in. Finding ways to document these huge three dimensional spaces was testing. It wasn’t until I was invited to the photography department at Wimbledon School of Art, to work on my degree show, that I realised what I could achieve when I had full control of a studio space.
What was your first paid shoot?
I worked with a lot of musicians and music management at the beginning of my career… and, even though many of the jobs I was involved with weren’t massively creative, they were paying for the self-initiated work I did in order to build a visually rich portfolio.
What was your most recent paid shoot and how did it differ from your very first?
I am currently editing a shoot for a big fashion label that I have had a fantastic time working on. The shoot is for their new season’s collection and the whole team executed it perfectly. Heading up a creative team and directing a project, that essentially determines whether or not a large clothing company has a financially successful season, is a lot of pressure. But at the same time it is massively exciting. Knowing that my clients place such belief in my work is brilliant and gives me the confidence to push myself further on every project.
What role did your upbringing and education play leading up to you becoming a photographer?
I was raised in the north of England, in a very small close family, not far from the neon flashing lights of Blackpool. Both my parents are, to this day, the most understanding and encouraging people I could wish for. My mother is the other creative brain in the family. I grew up working for my mother, she had several small businesses in a small seaside town just north of Blackpool. One of her businesses where I spent most of my time was a small shop, called ‘Things Unlimited’, that sold an eclectic range of gifts from all over the world. She encouraged me from a very early age to explore my imagination and to be as creative as possible, as well as being my biggest critic. Sheltered under a Moroccan style tented-ceiling was this cornucopia filled with unusual and exotic curiosities, which would have sat comfortably amongst the pages of a Harry Potter novel. In short, it was a kid’s wonderland, and no doubt fueled my overactive imagination. At school I began to study Claymation/stop-frame animation. I’d spend countless hours creating super-detailed and elaborate miniature set-designs, forcing my school to start an animation department. Then I progressed to the Theatre Department and set-designing so I could work on a bigger scale. It wasn’t until art college that I realised I could only achieve a certain level of fantasy by building these mini-worlds, which is when I began to take photographs and digitally manipulate them into something unique.
What attracted you to working in photography?
Creatively, I like the self-contained, controlled environment of a photography studio. Being able to start from nothing but an idea, creating something that tells a story and evokes some sort of reaction from its viewer. I think what particularly excites me, with my work, is the ability to create something that doesn’t necessarily exist in real life; be it a subject, an environment or situation.
Do you draw inspiration from any other photographers?
The list is endless: from Guy Bourdin, to Tim Walker, to Nick Knight, to Erwin Olaf. My main influences however come from other creatives such as film directors and production designers; the people who create filmic environments and fantasy worlds designed to temporarily transport you to what their imagination has dreamed up.
What time frame did you usually have to work with on a shoot?
It varies with every job. I have had months to work on a large scale single image and I’ve also had an overnight turnaround on a 40 page fashion lookbook. This career choice definitely keeps you on your toes.
As a photographer and artistic director, do you also have a team?
A great team is key. I am lucky enough to have built a small team of very talented reliable individuals. Being able to understand how each other works is hugely important but also being pushed, and tested, is massive part of growing as a professional.
When you are behind the lens, what are you thinking about?
Usually I come to the studio knowing exactly what it is that I need to get out of a subject, to satisfy the needs of the client. Working towards that goal means having a clear mental picture, of the final image, and working back to achieve that. Unless I’m missing ‘The Walking Dead’… then I’ll be thinking about that. [smile]
What is your definition of success and how will you know you’ve achieved it?
I guess the definition itself constantly changes as your career develops and you achieve the goals you set yourself. Essentially for me, success is being able to sit back after a job is released and feel a buzz of what it is that I’ve created, to be excited by the story I have built, but also have others enjoy the work and pursue me to help achieve their vision. Your work can be commercial, animated and theatrical.
What photographic work, of yours, are you most proud of?
That’s so hard to answer, it’s a cliché but you are only as good as your last job. And as my career goes on, I look back at projects I released a year, a month, or a week ago and see ways in which I could have improved it. I am my worst critic.
When you are planning a shoot, what are you thinking about?
Everyone has a different process. Mine is running. I develop my strongest ideas whilst jogging. I start by taking the brief from the client and liken it, where possible, to visuals that are from my own vivid mental archive. Then i run with it – literally. Once i have a clear concept, I will create an illustration and then present it to the client. And work alongside them to refine the idea into something we are both happy with.
How does your role as a visual artist differ from that of a photographer?
‘Photographer’, for most, suggests that it begins and ends with a camera; with a light bit of editing thrown in. I make a point to present something that doesn’t necessarily exist in real life and to achieve that digital tools are required. Also I work in film, production design, sculpture and illustration, so labeling my practice becomes confusing.
How do you feel when you know you’re onto something and how do you keep ideas flowing?
Usually I’ll suddenly realise that it’s 6.30am and I’ve been locked in my studio for 24hrs, completely lost in my own world. That’s usually a good indicator. I have friends, who work in the same field, who know that it’s absolutely fine to call me at 4am if I’m working on a big project as there’s a 95% chance I’ll be awake… or walking the dog.
You describe your work sometimes as ‘deviant visuals.’ Can you explain?
I grew up on horror movies and Disney villains, to say that influenced me as an adult would be an understatement. I have never been good at portraying smiley, happy family scenarios (unless there was a hint of schizophrenia). I like the extremes of society, the malevolence behind closed doors, for me all that is visually exciting.
Individual work can be the subject of criticism, have you ever felt criticised and how do you deal with it?
There is very little that isn’t subject to criticism. We are the age of social media, where everyone has an opinion, not to mention the fact that the people with the opinions are often the ones who aren’t creating. I, like the majority of creatives, have had work ripped to shreds. And as I’m sure those people would agree, it is extremely hard not to take it personally. However, if I’m enjoying myself and my clients are happy with what we have created then I’m not going to loose sleep over one person’s negativity.
Your work can be bold, vivid and even neon. Why do you think your work is so well received?
Well hopefully it appeals to people’s imagination, it’s fun and playful, and viewers can see that it’s not to be taken too seriously.
You said that you were ‘disheartened’ by the content of many fashion magazines. How and why?
I have a routine once a month where I go to a newsstand on Great Marlborough Street and a magazine store on Wardour Street, in central London, and spend a small fortune on new issues of fashion, art and photography magazines. I spread them out across my studio floor and sit with a coffee, and the dog, and go through each one – page by page. With the fashion mags, there’s always at least one shoot that leaps out at you. It’s usually the one that the publication has pumped some money into. But recently, I have struggled to get excited or find inspiration over any. This teamed with the ever increasing pressure to shoot fashion trend stories for these publications, in order to be seen as a ’serious photographer’, is somewhat alarming. I guess it’s all down to what style of photography is fashionable at that time.
What do you do to improve, invigorate and motivate yourself?
Being self-employed and working in my own studio, it’s very important to be self-motivated as there are no offices to go to and no board meetings to attend. I make sure to spend a few days of the week working alongside friends in similar situations, even if it’s just two of you sat at a desk on your computers. Being able to bounce ideas, and get second opinions on edits, I have found to be valuable. Keeping active is hugely important, I run most days and train at the gym. Going out and seeing as much cinema, theatre, art and design, as possible is key to freshening up your respective and sparking inspiration. But I think the most important way to keep improving your body of work is to collaborate with other professionals that can push and test your skills. If you’re not
learning then, you’re not improving.
Have you collaborated with other photographers or do you plan to?
Photographers are infamous for being a cautiously protective lot, creatively keeping their cards close to their chest; which is entirely understandable due to the over-saturation of photographers in a relatively small community. I’ve consulted with other photographers but it’s a simple case of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’.
What camera do you currently shoot with?
I’m a Canon kinda guy – at the moment I’m working with a 5D Mark III. I have always worked with Canon, they have been incredibly reliable. I dropped my 7D once, it smashed and whilst it was getting repaired, I switched to a Nikon which just felt alien to me. I’m definitely a creature of habit.
What photographic equipment would you like to add to your collection?
My work is increasingly moving more towards film now, so building a kit of studio lighting and playing around with the EOS-1D C and other fresh toys is all pretty exciting. Also plans are in motion for an underwater project, which will be great to test out some underwater specific equipment. What advice do you have for young photographers hoping to achieve success? Be aware of what is out there… and avoid being that.