When fashion photographer Solve Sundsbo started his career, for a while it seemed as though he would get no further than the dole queue. "People would say to me, 'I'm not sure I can hire you, I'm not sure what you're doing. What is your style?' I was mortified and thought I was never going to make a living as a photographer."
The problem was that curiosity had got the better of the young Norwegian and he couldn't help but embrace every photographic technique going. His work incorporated everything from X-rays and 3-D scanning to hi-tech manipulation and laborious hand-painted retouching. "If I've got a style," says Sundsbo, "it's that I've got no style."
Undeterred, and still in his early twenties, Sundsbo hopped on a plane to London to set about seeking his fortune. And four months into a photography course at the London College of Printing he got a call from Nick Knight, who was looking for an assistant. For a young fashion photographer, there are few better places to start. Knight is not only regarded as one of the world's most visionary fashion photographers, but his Show Studio gallery continually pushes the boundaries of artistic possibilities. "It was hard – almost medieval in the way that you devote yourself utterly to your teacher for nearly four years. But you get that same devotion back from your teacher."
The hard work paid off and Sundsbo is now regarded as a fashion-world institution.
The designer Tom Ford cannot speak highly enough of him. "Solve is a great talent in the fashion industry," he says. "His photographs speak for themselves. They are powerful, beautiful, always fresh, and I am lucky to have worked with him over the past decade."
Sundsbo's portfolio reads like a who's who of luxury designers – Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Gucci, Hermès, Bally and Armani. He has also branched out into short films, teaming up with Alexander McQueen to produce a piece for the Florence Biennale. "We set Eva Herzigova on fire," he says. "She was really floating on water but it looked as if she was going up in flames." He's also responsible for the covers of this month's Dazed & Confused and the current issue of Pop, featuring supermodel Stephanie Seymour.
Despite his versatility, it's easy to spot a Sundsbo image. His pictures look as if they've been digitally altered, when in fact often they haven't. "People assume my work has been through a computer but actually I also use a lot of old-fashioned techniques," he says. The concept is also more important to Sundsbo than the finish and he probably has more in common with a fine artist than slick fashion snapper. When he was asked to take a picture of Nitin Sawhney, for example, he made a plaster-cast model of the musician's head and took a picture of that instead. And when YSL hired him to shoot a fragrance campaign, he persuaded a former member of the French Olympic tae kwon do team to appear in advertising's first full-frontal male nude shoot. "We're raised to understand that women's bodies sell products," he says, "but when you apply the same notion to a male, people can't accept it. It was an interesting exercise in people's perceptions."
Sundsbo is now intent on railing against mediocrity in fashion imagery. "Photography has become democratic – anyone with a digital camera can shoot something and alter it in Photoshop to make it look polished. For the past four or five years there's been a lot of dull, perfected work around, but there's an industry backlash going on now."
To coincide with London Fashion Week, Sundsbo is launching his inaugural exhibition in London's Spring Studios, a former paint factory that is now a devoted fashion gallery. Sundsbo's work will be blown up and reproduced to the highest quality – a luxury that fashion magazines can't afford. One of his best-known pictures on show is of the British model Karen Elson, with the colours slightly altered to give the image a harder, otherworldly edge. Then there are shots of Canadian model Jessica Stam smiling through a tiny set of fangs, and designer Gareth Pugh in a knitted American football kit. "The great thing about being a photographer is that you can manipulate your own universe," concludes Sundsbo. "It would be wonderful if the world was inhabited by these creatures. I'd love it if any one of them walked out of the frame and into my world."