Photographer and judge from America's Next Top Model, Nigel Barker talks to ePHOTOzine.
Photographer and judge from America's Next Top Model, Nigel Barker talks to ePHOTOzine. - Nigel Barker is a photographer best known for his work on America's Next Top Model but fashion's not the only subject on his photography CV. ePHOTOzine spoke to him to find out more.
If anyone mentions the name Nigel Barker you'll probably think of a good-looking judge from America's Next Top Model. But Nigel is a successful photographer in his own right, who's taken the fashion industry by storm. He's spent time in front of the camera, modelling for brands such as Giorgio Armani and he's directed and produced films for Hollywood clients as well as charitable organisations. His charitable nature extends into his photography with Nigel producing work to spread the word about humanitarian causes which need help. He's recently turned his attentions to Haiti and the people who need help there and you can find more information about this on his website. Running a successful photography business, judging on a television show and producing documentaries, you'd think Nigel Barker may be a little bit short on time, but he squeezed ePHOTOzine into his busy schedule to chat to us from his office in New York. Here's what he had to say:
Is there anything new going on at Studio NB?
"We have a lot of projects going on. Right now, we are completing a book on beauty which is due out in the Fall with Abrams the publisher. It's a book that looks at beauty from a different perspective. It's not a book that shows lots of photographs of models doing their thing, it's a book about real girls, real people, models and celebrities but the focus is on inner beauty and how that affects your outer beauty. It's the story of what I think should make a great shot and the pictures I remember taking specifically because they were such great people and that reflected in the image. It's also to encourage young girls to not compare themsleves against impossible realities and crazy retouching that isn't actually real in the first place. So that's something we're in the throws of now and we'll be wrapping it up in the next couple of weeks."
So is the book idea something you came up with?
"We've worked on the book idea for a couple of years, trying to formulate the best way to do it. The fun thing about it is we're putting the girls through a series of challenges in the book, so it's like a work book. I talk to them about an element of beauty, say compassion as an inner beauty attribute. We set these photo challenges asking people to go and help someone in the street, help out in a soup kitchen, do this, do that and think about what they've done and either take pictures of the people they meet, really see the look in their eyes and talk about these people's issues using photography as a photo therapy of sorts to discover their inner beauty. So it's quite a wrapped-up book."
It sounds like a rather unique idea?
"I think it's a first as well. It's a cross between a photo book, a beauty book, a motivational book, a feel-good book and it's a work book at the same time.
Art therapists have used photography in various ways and I'm not an art therapist but I have my own knowledge and experience of working with models, working with young girls and searching for the 'diamond in the rough' for many years on America's Next Top Model and it all accumulates in this book."
From what you're saying about your book, feelings are important to you – is this true?
"Absolutely. If people aren't in the mood you can tell and whatever mood they're in you can see it on their face and that's why it's crucial to make sure people feel comfortable to reveal their inner story because otherwise you're going to get a blank, façade of a shot."
How's America's Next Top Model going?
"It's number one show on Channel 11 in the USA and it's getting bigger and brighter all of the time. We've just signed up a new judge called André Leon Talley who is the American editor-at-large for Vogue magazine. Which is a big deal for us. To have someone as important as him in the fashion industry on board further cements our place in the fashion industry."
In the latest series aired in the USA you used shorter models.
"Yes, we had a petite season and all the girls had to be under five foot seven in order to compete."
Did having models who were under the normal industry size cause any problems?
"I don't think so really. It can be difficult sometimes from a stylist's perspective but as a photographer you don't think: “Oh, I can't photograph you because you're short.” I mean, most people aren't model height and you'd be out of work if you couldn't photograph someone who wasn't five foot nine. If you think about models in our time, Twiggy is 5'6 and Kate Moss is 5'6 and a half, both of who could have been contestants on our show and as we know they are two of the most-photographed women of our time. Size isn't an issue and that's one of the reasons why we did it because, up until now, you had to be above five foot seven and these shorter girls were excluded and it didn't make sense."
Do you think the photographic industry is harder than when you started?
"I don't think it's harder at all – in many respects I think it's easier. I say that because starting in photography when I did was a much more expensive process. Cameras weren't around as much, you had to buy film and, whatever you shot, you had to save up your money and process the film or learn how to process yourself. You needed to understand the science of photography and you needed darkrooms and many other things which cost a fortune. You even had to be of a certain age just to afford that. It was almost a luxury to do photography. Whereas these days everyone's a photographer. You don't need darkrooms. My little boy who's four years old runs around taking photographs, deleting and shooting and he can take thousands of pictures and I don't bat an eyelid. Those things didn't used to be possible. So, now we're getting a whole new generation of people who aren't afraid to take pictures and they're able to finesse their talent at a very young age. You used to give a four year old a crayon now you can give them a camera and that's why there's so many accomplished artists who are 17/18 years old and now we're going to have accomplished photographers who are that age too."
Is film something you miss?
"I do, of course, but I still shoot it every now and again; it's not like it's gone. It's a medium, so for me it's not a case of missing it, it's about dabbling in it when I want to. I mean, I still pick up pencils and draw too you know! I just see it as another tool and in commercial photography, way before film was out of vogue, we were scanning it, digitising it and manipulating it before it got printed anyway. So it just became unnecessary to shoot in film unless you were a fine art photographer because what was the point? You were going to have to digitise it anyway."
When you're in the studio, other than your camera, is there a piece of equipment you can't be without?
"Something we always have to have, or something we always like to have is music, so an iPod. It may sound a little odd when actually it's very important. With music you can set a tone, you can set a feeling. You can pick from anything from classical to hard rock and you can change the way people are feeling. If you put on the right theme-tune for that person they will totally get into the mood; they get a beat going and they feel comfortable. It can make them feel nostalgic, it can take them to some place and when you're trying to create a photograph, if you want to make something happen quickly, that's a no-brainer way to do it. For example, on America's Next Top Model, because it's a recorded show we can't have any noise and sound so it's silent and that's one of the things the girls have to deal with and the photographers too because on most fashion shoots there's music blaring. My advice for people in that situation is try and play a tune in your head so you can escape to that area. That way, you'll feel comfortable, you'll feel secure."
Plus size models are getting a lot of positive press and on America's Next Top Model one of your winners was a plus size model, so do you think these girls will be playing a more important role in the industry this year and into the future? Do you think we'll ever get away from the 'size-0' models we've all come to know?
"I think we already are to be honest. I think the industry is changing and shows like ours are helping to pave the way, change the demographic and make people feel better about themselves. There's a big move towards real beauty and real people and it's making a statement in itself. It's saying: 'Look, we are the people buying the products, we consider ourselves beautiful, our husbands do and our families do and there's no reason why we shouldn't also be celebrating it and I'd like to see someone like myself in an advert' and I think that's what's happening."
You're well known for your fashion work but you also work on other projects, raising awareness on several issues. Have you got any more of these projects lined-up?
"A lot of my work is based in Africa or Haiti and we created a film called: 'Haiti, hunger and hope' which can be viewed on my website and I also worked on Generation Free which was shot all over the world but we're always looking for new projects and new ideas. We're potentially shooting a film called the last Orangutan, which will be shot in Borneo and will be about the declining Orangutan population. These are labours of love that we enjoy doing and it's important to get the message out there using our image-making skills and trade.
I'm also trying to organise a fund raiser for Haiti and I'd ask people to go onto nigelbarker.tv to see the work we're doing there, and I've also listed all the things people can do to help on my website."