By Tony Sokol
Before his photography started to get him into trouble, it was trouble that got Tony KnightHawk into photography, an interest that started in high school. He explains, “Back then film was the norm and a darkroom was necessary to process the film and make prints.”
KnightHawk joined the school newspaper to get more access to the school darkroom. “The darkroom door would always be locked and I noticed that the night janitor would make sure it was locked before you would leave for the day. He never would open the door; just check to make sure it was locked. When school would let out, I would lock myself in the darkroom. After I heard the jiggle of the door handle being checked for locked, I knew I had the darkroom to myself for the night. I would spend the night processing all my images before school started the next morning.”
Some nights KnightHawk slept on the darkroom table. “The wrestling team would come in early so I would blend in with them in the early a.m. and no one ever knew I had spent the night in the school’s darkroom.” No one knew until KnightHawk fell asleep on the table one late night and was woken up by one of his teachers. “This is how I learned that I snore in my sleep.” KnightHawk’s dedication earned him a week in detention, but he admits “those years in the darkroom were magic every time I would see an image appear on the chemical soaked photo paper.”
Magic also figures strongly in Tony KnightHawk’s art. He spent a lot of his professional life going back and forth between the magic of photography and performance magic. He also used his skills as a stage magician to create special effects for theater. “I have to say I was amazed over the years to find how many magicians I know have an interest in photography and how many photographers have a love of magic.”
KnightHawk says the two interests informed each other, “Photography helped me stage my magic performances by being more acute to what the audience is viewing. Magic has helped me become a better photographer because it has trained me to see past the obvious and to look at things from every angle.”
KnightHawk doesn’t court controversy, but he’s brushed against it several times. The model Melody Lee wanted to be photographed while being hung by the neck. Tony had learned rigging doing from his background in bondage photography, as a magician and doing special effects for theater, such as La Commedia del Sangue: New York City’s Vampyr Theatre. He says “I can make a rope harness and hang people upside down and still have them spin sideways if I wanted.” But he had never “hanged” someone by the neck. “I remember thinking I would be in the police interrogation room after they found her lifeless body and here I am with all the photographic evidence they need to escort me to the electric chair provided by my own camera. The really scary part of this whole scene was I can see myself arguing the artistic merit of the images. ‘Sure she died but what a great shot huh?'” KnightHawk agreed to do the shoot only after he was satisfied that with his safety precautions and that they videotaped the session “I had fashioned a rope around her neck quite snug but not tight.
The second rope was tied under the first rope and was securely tied to hold its shape. So in the image what looks like one rope is in reality two. The second rope, the one that looked like she was hanging from, would not constrict.” The other end of the rope was tied down with a quick release on it. “Now it was time for hair, makeup, and getting naked. I pulled the rope up just high enough so she would be off her heels. We shot a few images and then she put her feet down and all was well. The last in the series I moved the angle of the shot so you get the idea that she is off the ground. I remember looking through the camera and thinking ‘wow this really looks like she is hanging.'”
Tony realized that the model “was so committed to the concept she had kicked her feet back so she could really hang.” Lee’s face was turning red when KnightHawk released the safety rig. “The Hanging” was posted to a popular website for models and photographers and immediately caused a firestorm about how “putting the life of a model in danger is not worth any image.” Attacks from the BDSM community followed, after people complained that the image looked fake. “This is when the model came out with a statement saying how she is willing to suffer for her art and she would have hung there longer and turned blue if I said so. That is when the website suspended my account. The kicker to all this is when I had rejoined the site a few months later. There on the site in the portfolio of the model was the image that had gotten me suspended.” Along with offers for work for the model.
A lot of KnightHawk’s work has been in exploration of fetish imagery, which has led to work being exhibited in some off-the-beaten path venues. He was the resident artist at Paddles NYC, which at the time was known as New York City’s “friendly S/M club.” KnightHawk says “The group DomSub Friends welcomed me and my work and have been very supportive over the years.” He also had an early showing at Purple Passion, which had “a fetish store upstairs and a fetish gallery downstairs.” The show was part of a fund raiser for Barbara Nitke, The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom Foundation who were plaintiffs in a Supreme Court case against John Ashcroft, the Attorney General of the United States (https://ncsfreedom.org/component/k2/itemlist/category/108-barbara-nitke-case.html). “Barbara has been a huge influence in my work and who doesn’t want sexual freedom, so I was honored to be part of that event.” KnightHawk says Barbara Nitke’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Nitke) work “opened my eyes and mind to the concept of how photography is more than just a technical art. Her work influenced me on how overwhelming it can be capturing a moment in time. How in a moment you can see inside of yourself and notice a dusty corner of your mind you rarely explore. Some of her images made me realize that what is not in the image can be just as insightful as what you do see. Our styles are nothing alike but she has a profound influence on the way I see.”
KnightHawk and his work appeared in the film Art of Erotica: The Outsiders, Rogues, Rebels, and Renegades (http://www.filmbizarro.com/view_review.php?review=artoferotica.php), a documentary done on the subject of the court case that included Barbara Nitke, KnightHawk, and several other artists. “Even there I manage to find myself in an awkward moment. I went to view the film at a small theater on the lower east side of Manhattan. I met with a few people in the lobby, some friends, some fans, but mostly strangers. I sat in the back of the theater only because that is where I am most comfortable. Just like in High School always in the back of the classroom. When my segment from the film appeared on the screen it was a slow fade out of my name in lights to a fade in of me sitting on a stool. There was a brief pause from me on the screen. It was only few seconds before I actually began speaking in the movie. That is when, for reasons to this day I do not understand, I yelled out from the back of the theater…’OH MY GOD I look so FAT.’ My worst nightmare had materialized, I had just heckled myself.”
KnightHawk changes his photographic methods depending on the subject and what he is trying to convey. “I use natural light when I can. I have a love of using one light on my subjects when it fits the project.” KnightHawk says he’s “moved out of the darkroom and digital darkroom. Most of my work is now refined on a computer screen and not in a chemical bath. I still have old school stubbornness to some of my work. Any effects, like double exposure, I like getting in camera more than retouching it on the computer.” KnightHawk has explored work with special effects makeup and has done quite a lot of erotic photography that is not specifically bondage-related. “I use nudity in my images to convey a mood or invoke an emotion more so than for just nudity sake. When people look at my art I don’t want to hear them say, Wow that is one sexy naked girl on those rocks.’ I rather hear them say, ‘Wow I now understand why the naked girl is on those rocks.'”