In a chic gallery in New York City's Greenwich Village, Nigel Barker's exhibition "A Sealed Fate?" goes off without an unfashionable hitch. Outside are lines of Manhattan's prettiest and most style-conscious activists; inside are walls decorated with some of Barker's more charitable work. Photograph after unpretentious photograph of baby harp seals--victims of the commercial seal hunt--hang in the swank space, displaying yet another dimension to Barker's craft. Beyond the smartly dressed crowd, the vegan hors d'oeuvres, and the sleek ambiance is a humble simplicity to the collection of 44x60 canvases exhibited, as well as a message that's heard in a pitch slightly louder than the static surrounding it.
Admiring the polished technique in the photographs, the shallow depth-of-field separating a seal's eyes and whiskers from the ice-covered tundra beyond, I uncover yet another double entendre in Barker's "A Sealed Fate?" display: a depth-of-field appropriate for both his work and his person. A judge on America's Next Top Model reality television show, a former model, and a successful fashion photographer based out of New York City's trendy Meatpacking District, Nigel Barker boasts a 17-year career that looks spectacular on paper, but his message is understood in an octave slightly higher than the notes that would ordinarily define his photography, encapsulating an artistic vision that is nothing short of, well, deep.
"No matter what kind of job I'm doing, I try not to pigeonhole," says Barker, whose work includes fashion and ad campaigns. "I don't want to say that a photograph has to be for one demographic; I try to look at the bigger picture."
By looking at the bigger picture, Barker is able to quiet the white noise of fickle trends that sit at the surface of a moment in time, capturing a glimpse into the past, a present spark, and a future idol. His images are, in a word, classic.
"If you think of any of the photographs of our time that illustrate a moment, it's always connected to the heart," he says. "Whether it's Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington or the last images of John F. Kennedy in his convertible, it is this timeless element that I try to take into my photography." And though he may use photojournalistic references, Barker says that "even in fashion, there's a relevant passion."
Barker's shooting mystique is wrapped up in his ability to photograph the subtle character of his subjects. Barker's pictures combine a provocative aesthetic with a multifaceted sincerity; they are images that not only recognize the fashion of our time, but also the time that fashions ourselves.
An Eye for Empathy
Starting off as a working model in his own right, Barker's first "in" as a professional photographer was through the various agencies that he'd modeled for. Slowly growing a portfolio of clientele, Barker used his modeling experience when directing other models. A skill that he still uses on the set, Barker's hands-on approach allows him a deeper insight into his subject's perspective. "I empathize with my models because I know what it's like to be in their position," he explains. "I almost always have my assistants shoot me in my own light so I can try to make my models feel the most secure."
Indeed, half the battle of commercial photography, according to Barker, is cracking that proverbial shell. "Fashion photographers use their charm and their charisma as one of their tools--it's like their favorite light," he says. "Photography is a very intimate business, so you can't approach models as if they're just a slab of meat and it's only about putting them in the right light, directing them in the right position, and dressing them in the right outfit."
By establishing a confidence with his models, Barker extracts the unguarded parts of his subjects--the parts that are oftentimes too difficult to detect upon first meeting--and builds layers into his images based on these raw characteristics.
"I talk a lot when I'm shooting," he says. "I'll say, 'It's O.K. to talk to me; it doesn't matter if your mouth is moving when I take the picture, I'll never use it,' but it's the shot after that, the real laugh when I say something funny, that I'm focusing on. It's not a performance in front of the camera, method acting where you can get your subject to be in the moment."
Barker concentrates on pulling out the honesty of his subject's beauty--which, according to him, isn't always easy to do in fashion. "There are photographers out there that use their lighting and technique to almost make people look as ugly as possible, that's their style--it's very harsh."
What makes Barker's work distinctive is that in lieu of the wall of makeup, the loud dress, and the overall ostentation of a photo shoot, his images evoke a very real modesty. His photography doesn't get lost in the hoopla of the set, but instead takes the viewer into the heart of the subject. He does this by perfecting an almost give-and-take relationship with his subjects.
"The Marilyn Monroe pictures by Bert Stern show a woman who, though provocative, is also in control," says Barker. "For me, it's all about following these models with my camera. As much as I'm going to try to lead the shoot, I also want my models to lead me--they do the dance, and I want to follow. I create images that are about the person--about the subject. The way that translates into fashion and selling clothes is: How does the subject feel in your clothes? Though some may say that it should be more about the clothes than the people in them, I believe that things have changed recently."
Barker notes that there has been a movement against the nearly impossible standards of beauty that were expected in the late '80s and early '90s in commercial photography. "One of the reasons why 'real people' have become more common in ad campaigns is because the public doesn't want the wool pulled over their eyes, so to speak," he says. "They want to see something that they perceive as less fake than your typical campaign. Even when I'm shooting models, I'm trying to get them to a point where they're comfortable, so that I can get the real person out of the model. Even if it's sexy, there is still a very real emotion that I'm trying to reflect."
In his work with Frederick's of Hollywood, Barker set out to gauge this new demand for real standards of beauty and sexiness with the company's already notable brand. "In America, the company is well known for lingerie, but we wanted to make the photographs much more fashionable and dynamic," he says. "We wanted to infuse some feeling into the images. [It's not about the lingerie]: It's the idea that the girl in the lingerie represents a feeling of sexy, instead of just looking sexy."
Building a Brand
Like any creative photographer, Barker is most interested in building a brand from the ground up. "I enjoy doing something new," he says. "What inspires me is when a client says, 'We want something different,' or 'Can you help make us?'"
One project where Barker was given this type of leeway was with Lexus. "Lexus was trying to brand themselves as a green company," he says. "They came up with this extremely high-end hybrid green car. We were challenged with the fact that when people think of green, they don't necessarily think of cool and hip; they think of nerdy--they think of hemp clothing. We came up with a concept to bring in top-designers who are green. The designers were relatively unknown in the public sphere, so we actually featured the designers themselves with the Lexus cars. We wanted to bring this boutique chic to the Lexus brand."
Bringing high-end appeal seems to be Barker's forte, and ad agencies around the globe have been hiring Barker for more than just his photography--they want his ideas. Barker and his team are capable of doing everything from creating concepts and casting to production and post. "It becomes very much a collaborative effort, because you're taking someone's baby and injecting your ideas and thoughts," he says.
Key to Barker's business strategy is getting it right every time. "You don't have the luxury of 'maybe' as a professional," he explains. "You have no luxuries other than 'you better get this right because it's a multimillion-dollar account.' Companies are paying for your expertise and the guarantee that you're going to deliver--that's the business behind [being a] commercial photographer. You have to know your art form, you have to be creative, but you also have to know your business, which is generally the hardest part for photographers."
To ensure that there are no "maybes," Barker surrounds himself with a team of pros. Delegation is important in photography--knowing who you can trust. "My first assistant hires all my other assistants," he says. "It isn't important whether the other people get along with me--it's important that they get along with him because he reports to me. There's a hierarchy, everyone reports to the one above--of course, I oversee everything, but I tend to get along with everybody."
His team will expand depending on the job. "Normally we shoot with three assistants; it really depends on the size of the shoot, the budget, and how elaborate the gig is," Barker explains.
With half of the year spent traveling internationally, Barker's team is meticulous when it comes to planning. "It's tough, because you have tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, so you have to manage a system--again, it's a business model," he says. "That's why a successful fashion photographer is 60 to 75 percent creative, and the rest has to be business savvy. The reality is that there are a lot of guys out there that can do what you can do, and they will probably look at your campaign and think that they could've done it better, but the question is whether they can do it at the same speed and with the same budget."
Looking for Luck
A judge on America's Next Top Model and the creator of his own reality TV show on VH1, The Shot (which follows aspiring fashion photographers), Barker has a career that has made him a household name, and Nigel Barker LLC into a well-known brand. He has endorsement deals with David's Bridal (Prom Section), Microsoft, and Sony. He's also a spokesperson for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Do Something, and The Children's Trust.
"As a business, Nigel Barker LLC isn't limited to just taking photographs; we direct and produce commercials," he says. "Recently, I've gotten involved with a lot of philanthropic and charitable ventures."
Barker has grown from fashion model to photographer to industry mammoth. When asked what has gotten him so far so fast, he says he learned early on in his career how to capitalize on opportunities when they presented themselves. "Some people will call it luck, and I would say that there is luck, but you also have to see opportunity and grab it when you see it," he says. "When you see these chances happen in your life--and they happen to all of us--you have to try to use it to the best of your ability, because even then people squander opportunity."
What's next for the brand and the man? "There's no end in sight," he says. "We try to define ourselves as creative people with a creative business. Photography is a medium that I love, but it's not the only medium in which I dabble. If it's creative and you want our input, we're here for you as a business. The photography aspect always plays a part, because pictures are what often define history, and are, as a tool, very useful."
For more Barker images visit www.studionb.com.
Nigel Barker's Gear Box
• Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID
• Mamiya lenses: 37, 90, 110, and 140mm
• Leaf Aptus 54S digital back
• Phase P 45+ digital back
• Profoto 7a and 7b packs with beauty dishes, magnums, and softboxes
• Apple Quad and 17-inch PowerBooks