Photographer Nigel Barker talks about his latest book, Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion, his career as a model, being photographed by Taylor Swift, and more.
This weekend, acclaimed fashion photographer, author, and host of Oxygen’s The Face, Nigel Barker will head to Capitol Hill’s DCanter wine and beer boutique for an intimate book-signing event celebrating his latest project, Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion, just released last week by Harper Collins. “We have been fans of Nigel's work for quite some time,” says DCanter co-owner Michelle Warner. “We've always admired his artistic creativity… Great fashion comes from the passionate work of great artists, just like the great wine comes from the passionate work of great winemakers. It seemed like a no brainer.”
Below, we chat with Barker about the inspiration behind the book, his career as a model, his favorite shoot, and much more.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did your career as a fashion photographer start?
Nigel Barker: I had always been interested in photography. I’d been a photographer in high school, [where] I learned to print black and white film when I was about 14… But I became a model in the late ‘80s, really by chance. My mother entered me into a competition on TV called The Clothes Show. It’s somewhat ironic that I ended up working on America’s Next Top Model considering how my career started. As a model, I got to see these photographers working in fashion, and realized [it was] a job opportunity. As a model I studied the photographers who worked with me. When I got my first camera, I started shooting all my friends, and my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was my first muse—I built my portfolio on her. I became a photographer in the mid-'90s when fashion went from '80s glamorous Amazonian style modeling to androgyny and heroine-chic, and I looked at myself and I’m like, “I’m definitely not heroine-chic.”
Did you find that starting in front of the camera helped you behind the camera?
NB: It certainly did for me initially, early on. Being [a model] myself, I empathized with being photographed. I always try to be in the same conditions as they were when I photographed them. For example, if we’re all outside, I’m not all wrapped up and they’re freezing. Empathy makes that other person feel comfortable. Working with lots of photographers, you get to see their styles and how they work, and the ones that always interested me were photographers that had interesting relationships with models, that created chemistry, that broke down those barriers.
You started really concentrating on this book about two years ago and, initially, the number of images you wanted to include was way over 100.
NB: The book starts in the 1940s, which we call the “Golden Era” of modeling, and goes through every era, every decade, up until now. Slimming it down was tough but ultimately we looked at models who didn’t just epitomize an era or reflect what was happening at the time, but who actually helped shape it, and influence how beauty and pop culture was and is seen and portrayed.
There seems to be an era that you are particularly fond of.
NB: Oh, absolutely. I think I’ve always been very fond, style-wise, of the ‘50s. The photography from the ‘50s is very stylish, very specific. It’s really when [Richard] Avedon and Irving Penn came into their own. There was a lot of interest in fashion and design and in the glamorous side of fashion and entertainment at that point. If you look at the pictures they’re [...] almost over the top. The positions of the hands and the bodies. The neck’s always elongated, the hands out by their sides. That very famous Avedon picture of Dovima with the elephants is a perfect example of the drama of the day. And the opulence and the decadence that people wanted in pictures. It was post-war, so we were yearning for a better time and for the sort of luxury that we hadn’t had in the years.
Barker mentions this shoot with America's Next Top Model's season 7 winner CariDee English as one of the most memorable he's worked on.
What’s the most memorable photo shoot you’ve worked on?
NB: One of the most famous ones that I did was on America’s Next Top Model in Barcelona in the bullring. I was shooting CariDee English, who won that [season]. I was trying to get a shot of the bull charging the camera down. Once the bull got to a certain point [three matadors, the producers, my assistant and I] all jumped behind this big barrier. I was getting more and more foolhardy and brave as I realized [that] we had more time than they were giving me to get away. I eventually held my position even though I was told to get up and run. My assistant grabbed the camera out of my hands and as soon as he did so, I saw the bull was almost upon me. I managed to get up and swerve as the bull actually cut my back, ripped my shirt. If it would’ve hit me, it would’ve killed me. It was an interesting moment where your heart is pounding. I thought I was going to get kicked out of the bullring and instead the matadors looked at me, and embraced me, and said I had the heart of a bull. The episode was a classic and I got a fantastic photograph out of it. And, of course, I got a ripped shirt, and a cut on my back as a war wound, and a scar to prove it.
Is there anyone that you’ve found particularly easy to shoot?
NB: There have been lots of people who have been easier to shoot than one would imagine. Someone who I loved shooting and I had an incredible time with is actually Taylor Swift, who’s obviously not a model per se. I created a book in one day called Eight Hours with Taylor Swift. It’s a 60-page book on just her, following her throughout her day. Everything from making phone calls to hanging out to driving around [...] swinging on swings, driving in beautiful Mercedes, dancing and playing music—you name it. To be able to do something like that with somebody in a day is unusual and I gotta tell you, you can look at her film and it was all amazing. In fact, one of the fun parts of it, too, was that she took one of my cameras, and I was shooting her and she was me. They ended up being the best pictures of me as a photographer I’ve ever had taken. My personal headshot was shot by Taylor Swift, which is kind of cool.
You’re coming to DC to promote your book. Do you spend much time here?
NB: I have. I’ve worked with a lot NGOs there. I’m a spokesperson for The Humane Society of the United States and also the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatrics AIDS Foundation. I’ve actually lobbied Congress before, if you can believe it. And I was out in DC with my last book, Beauty Equation.
Here are Niche Media, we are big fans of The Humane Society. We hosted a fundraiser last summer as each of our magazine covers were original Peter Max artwork, and they were all auctioned off to benefit The Humane Society.
NB: I’ve been involved with them for a long time. Actually, Peter Max threw an event for me, in support of The Humane Society, so I’m very familiar with him and his work. I was asked to become a spokesperson for their Protect Seals campaign, which Peter Max is very involved with. When they asked me to go up to the ice and see the seals, and to be a part of [trying to] stop the hunt up in Canada, I filmed the entire thing and created a documentary called A Sealed Fate?. We used that documentary and the photographs that I shot as an exhibition and a touring piece that went all around the world. We ended up in Brussels with a big exhibition and advertisements in the newspapers and we actually lobbied the European Union and passed legislation banning the import of seal products into Europe for the first time in history. We really had an effective campaign with that. I’m also, ironically in many respects, on the Protect Sharks campaign. I say ‘ironically’ because sharks eat seals.
You’re an advocate for the animals.
NB: It’s about common sense. It’s not about loving an animal just because I love animals. I love nature and I love taking care and respecting the world that we live in and one of the things I love about The Humane Society is that it’s about common sense. It’s not about saying 'You have to be a vegetarian,’ although I am. It’s about saying, ‘Let’s be humane and let’s treat animals with decency.’ We have to treat the whole world with respect and all too often we don’t. And that goes not just for animals but for the flora as well. The way we treat the rainforest, the rivers, the water we have. I think it’s very important that we all act as global citizens not just as caring about our own doorstep.
I know you’re very excited to be doing your book signing at DCanter. How did you pick this space for the event?
NB: Funny you should ask. I didn’t really pick them, they picked me. I was rather flattered and honored. I’ve always loved doing book signings in unusual venues—I find them the most successful. When I heard a wine boutique would be doing a book signing for me, I immediately got up and said, “Yes, please.” This is a subject matter about elegance, it’s about class, it’s about models, it’s about fantasy—it’s subject matter which is best read with a glass of wine in your hand. When I wrote this book, I think I had a glass of wine by my side at all times.
Barker’s book signing will take place on February 28, 1-4 p.m. at DCanter, 545 8th St. SE., 202-817-3803