Noted fashion photographer (makes me laugh every time...), America’s Next top Model judge and top model himself Nigel Barker jetted in from sunny LA to drizzly Manchester to promote his new book Nigel Barker’s Beauty Equation’ The Art Behind the Science of Beauty at Selfridges.
I managed to catch up with him before the book signing to get inside his perfectly groomed head…
You initially wanted to go into science at school, what made you make the change to modeling and photography?
I’ve always been involved in fashion, even though my official A Levels were the three sciences, but I studied subjects like textiles, pattern cutting etc on the side. I was the only boy in a class of 25 girls and got teased a bit from the boys on the rugby team but at the end of the day, I was the one with a date every week!
How did you get into America’s Next Top Model?
I initially started modeling through a competition at The Clothes Show here in England and continued with my modeling career for about 7 or 8 years. After that everything began to change, heroin chic and androgyny became the trend and guys started to get bigger and more muscular. My background in fashion has always been very practical, photography had always been a hobby of mine, after all I was never professionally trained as a model so I was as qualified to be a photographer!
When things changed I didn’t want to throw away 8 years of education in the fashion industry, I had opted for a life of World travel instead of getting a degree. I used the information I’d gathered over the years and lived all over the World, in Milan, Paris, New York etc. I met my wife in Milan in 1994 and pretty much instantly fell in love with her, after that I followed her around and we both ended up in New York. In 1996 I began to establish myself as a permanent figure in the NY photography scene and was quite successful.
So often in the UK you start out in one area of photography, people like to pigeon hole you, it’s very ‘It’s just that model taking photos…’. In the US there’s a love of change, just think of Ronald Reagan going from actor to President! It’s very accepted and exciting, I’ve always loved that about the US.
I was embraced as a photographer and used the European slant to my advantage. I’d worked with Jay Manuel and Nole Marin during my career and was approached to be a photographer for one of the shoots during the first series. Back in those days they did a test shoot on screen with everyone to make sure you work on film, and 3 weeks later I got an unexpected call saying that they liked my tape and if I’d like a more permanent role.
I knew it was a risk as, after 12 years in the very elite industry of fashion, having a permanent role on a commercial, prime time reality show may have been frowned upon. It was exciting to get my name out there, instead of just being known for my photography, I was a household name, I’ve always been interested in the business aspect of the fashion industry.
You have traveled all over the World with your ANTM and your own modeling career, where is your favourite place?
My favourite place is home, it’s a stereotypical thing to say but it’s true. I’ve never been a photographer who was about the location, it’s always the person that makes it. I’ve been to the most beautiful places and been almost bored, but then I’ve been to the most desolate, desperate places and been completely enamored.
The ability to capture an image that shows their heart, I always look for the love and humanity. I realized early on you can use photos to shock people but it’s much more beneficial to a campaign to capture someones’ heart. You have to know how to seduce it our of the subject. There is actually very little in the book about skin deep beauty, it’s about developing confidence, self belief and charm. Once you break them down you can learn how to find them and trap those moments on film.
I wanted to write the book to inspire people Worldwide, there’s a lot of people who feel they’re inadequate or ugly who need to find their confidence and inner beauty.
What do you see as the biggest differences in style between the UK and the US?
The main difference that I notice is that men in the US are often scared to dress adventurously, it’s very stereotypical, if you come out of the box you will stand out.
In the UK, it’s a lot broader. For a country that fits twice into the state of Texas, it’s quite impressive. For example in the UK, you can find a skinhead sitting next to a dandy in a suit and no one would notice. It says a lot about the people, in the US they are trying to conform and blend in.
Brands like Ted Baker and Paul Smith are making changes, taking small steps to introduce something more exciting to the US.
Your new book is about the science of beauty, what do you see as the epitome of beauty?
NB: The ability to love. It’s beautiful to find your inner spirit and just be yourself, to be comfortable in your own skin. I meet a lot of people as a photographer and it’s very easy to become jaded and use it as a protective mechanism.
Some of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever taken were in Cité Soleil in Haiti, there’s no time or thought for airs and graces there, no time to pretend. It brings out the worst and best sides in people, it’s a time when humanity comes out in a raw form.
Despite my background in fashion, the essence of what we are as a species is in our humanity.
How would you describe your personal style?
NB: I joke about my personal style, over in the UK I don’t really stand out at all but in the US, people talk about it a lot. Even the fact that I wear stripy socks stands out! I wear a lot of jeans with suit jackets and bright colours, I like to think of my style as a mullet, business on top, party at the bottom!
I love colour and having a sense of fun with fashion. Clothes can hold you back so if you’re not comfortable, then you’re not going to have fun.
What tips would you give to a budding photographer?
NB: The main tip I always give to photographers is that you need to specialize in a certain aspect. You need to make a name for yourself, stick to your guns and create a distinct style. Editorial teams want to see the message you’re conveying and what you’re about.
I’ts hard to tell someone this when they’re just starting out and just want to make money, but it’s a really elitist business. It depends what kind of photographer you want to be, but from Wedding photography to high fashion, it’s always competitive.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m actually working on another book, a collection of nude portraits of pregnant women. Women from all across the World of all different heritages, colours, shapes and sizes. I want to inspire women to look at their bodies with love and for men to look at them with respect. Not everyone is happy in their pregnant body so I wanted to raise awareness of this and the complications that some people suffer. We will be teaming up with a charity after it’s completed, it’s still only a work in progress.
Also, we start filming America’s Next Top Model Season 16 in a couple of weeks!