In the early 2000s, photographer Phil Knott met a young Amy Winehouse at the beginning of her short but incredible career
In the early 2000s, British photographer Phil Knott photographed Amy Winehouse at the very outset of her career, before the world discovered the majestic talent swaddled in the addiction and pain that fuelled her art — and the tabloids’ bloodthirst. Dead at the age of 27, Winehouse had become a symbol of the fallen woman, denied redemption for bearing her wounds and scars openly, without shame.
Years after her death in 2011, Knott rediscovered the photographs he made of Winehouse and organised an exhibition of 27 prints for Didn’t Know You Cared to honour the life and legacy of a singular talent whose light was extinguished far too soon. Knott’s encounters with Winehouse predate her rise and fall, giving us a glimpse of a pure, innocent soul bound for a tragic destiny.
Knott, who has photographed everyone from Aaliyah to A$AP Rocky over the past 30 years, almost named the exhibition “Amy, I Love You” – a sentiment that is infused in every one of his photos. With the images now on display at New York City’s MixdUse Gallery until June 9, Knott shares his encounters with Winehouse and provides a portrait of the artist as a young woman on the cusp of fame.
“Amy was very shy, nice, polite, and as the day wore on she became a cheeky London girl. It’s that lovely London sarcasm that I miss” – Phil Knott
How did you connect with Amy Winehouse?
Phil Knott: I did two sessions at the start of her career. I got her just before Frank came out. She was a baby. She wasn’t dressed by anyone. This is back in the days when the artist would turn up with one person, not an entourage, not someone filming for content. You’d go and see bands, and they’d be on their own. No one would be holding their hands. You could hang out for quite a minute.
Amy was very shy, nice, polite, and as the day wore on she became a cheeky London girl. It’s that lovely London sarcasm that I miss. It was a lovely day. Nothing wild happened. Nothing burned down. Nobody got shot.
The next time I saw her, she was just starting to become Amy: a bit more sassy, a bit more confident. She looked like a bit of a rock n’ roller. Her first tattoo was an Indian feather and I was like, ‘Oh! You’ve got a tattoo.’ It was quite rare to see a girl with a tattoo. I got her at the cusp of her change. Frank was happening, then Frank blew up and it went from there. When the beehive came, I wasn’t involved at all.
Women didn’t really have tattoos back in the day. Maybe it was like Miley Cyrus when she moved away from Hannah Montana, it was a shock. Maybe Amy was saying, ‘I’ve had enough. I’ve been dressed up like a doll, I just want to fucking sing, make music, leave me be. I want to be me.’ Maybe that’s why people do these things, to fuck people off, to say, ‘Look, I’m changing. I’m not your little girl anymore.’
What makes a great portrait to you? What are you looking for?
Phil Knott: I’m looking for an attitude. I’m looking for something in the eye: a little sparkle, a little hope, and a lot of ‘fuck you’. I like the arrogance, the confidence, the ‘so what’. I find it quite strong. Maybe it’s a London thing. I like real people. I like bands that come in and they dress themselves because that’s the least of their worries. Their main worries are making great tunes. I like people to be honest. I like people to be real, and if it’s great music, absolute bonus. It’s truth, honesty, passion – when people really give it their all.
Did you observe anything about the tragic star she would become during the shoot?
Phil Knott: No. I thought she might have a number one album. When I head her voice, I was like, ‘Whoa, you are so fucking amazing.’ But I didn’t have a clue she was going to become this icon. It’s hindsight, like everything. You don’t know what you start with and you don’t know where this person will finish. Who knows what we will become?
What was it like to rediscover the photos?
Phil Knott: Amazing. They’ve been locked away for 20 years... those negatives. When I moved to LA, I started to digitise my stuff. My first box was ‘A’ – opened it up, and it was Amy. I was like, ‘Wow, these are great!’ At the time I wanted the rock and roll band, or a bit more Fuck You Heroes, but looking back on what I’ve got, it’s almost like when we finally saw Marilyn Monroe with red hair. People don’t realise there was a change. There was an innocence at the beginning of Amy’s career.
I thought they were boring at first because they weren’t crazy. I look at them now and I’m just so happy she was as is. Uncontrived. The lighting is classical and timeless. She is beautiful, sparkling, and fresh – and she has got this lovely hope in her eyes. I’m so happy there were no tattoos. This is the real deal.
What was the inspiration for the exhibition?
Phil Knott: I wanted to have a look at the 27 Club, what that means. Amy was never allowed to be forgiven – unlike other people who have done crazy drugs in their life. They get older, and there’s a certain atonement attached to it, and suddenly they become an elder statesman or stateswoman. But she was never given the opportunity
The press was that crappy ‘Amy Wino: you’re a drug addict.’ I’m like, really? This is how she is remembered for some of her life? I was like, absolutely not. I think she got double crap because she was a woman. This is just an observation but was it because she was a girl? Is it okay for a dude to get fucked and go crazy and be okay? Does society frown upon that for a woman getting fucked up? I don’t know.
It was just this tarnish, and that’s how she was left. I’m like, nah mate, there’s more to somebody that makes them. It’s like we always remember the worst. We never want to remember people as fantastic and lovely. What a great headline: ‘She was lovely.’ Ohh quick, page 5!
“The press was that crappy ‘Amy Wino: you’re a drug addict.’ I’m like, really? This is how she is remembered for some of her life? I was like, absolutely not. I think she got double crap because she was a woman’” – Phil Knott
No, we want to hear horror. We want to hear misery. We want to hear the worst about you. We want to slag you off. We want to put you down. From Facebook to Twitter to opinions, I think we like to see the worst in people. We don’t like to see the beauty. It’s like everybody lives in Salem – everybody has got their judgment. I think we watch soap operas to know there are people worse off than ourselves. Makes us feel better to know someone else is suffering.
I’m a happy bunny by the way. There’s always something good about people – and there’s always magic to remember, rather than the worst. We’re all terrible. Nobody is an angel. There is always something somebody has done. But if you have got a good heart and a good soul and a conscience to change, there is always room for atonement if you accept and want. We’re multifaceted. We show one side but there are many sides to other people
Now that all this time has passed, do you feel like she is getting the redemption?
Phil Knott: Don’t know. We’re talking about it now. I just want people to kick other thoughts. I’m not accusing anybody. I’m just saying, maybe have a look: look at other people and other things. Let’s see gives. I’m just looking and observing something. You never know. Let’s look at Amy again. Fuck all that horrible stuff; people do worse things. Let’s have a look at this girl’s life.
Phil Knott: Didn’t Know You Cared is on view at MixdUse Gallery in Brooklyn until June 9, 2019