Nigel Barker is a massively successful photographer who has been impacting the fashion world with his creativity and innovation for the past 20 years. In addition to his renowned fashion and portrait work, he also works in film and television as a director, producer, and personality on shows such as America’s Next Top Model, and most recently, The Face. He’s just finished his newest book, Models of Influence, and had some time to turn out his pockets for us and share his everyday carry. Join us as Nigel, a creative and leader in his field, details his day-to-day, the kit he EDCs to get the job done, and some inspirational insight for aspiring photographers and anyone trying to take their work to the next level.
Between your work as a fashion photographer and your television roles, every day on the job must be interesting but challenging. Could you walk us through your day-to-day?
While my day-to-day varies enormously, I’ll mention a few things as they define me: I get up every day at 5:15 AM to hit the gym before I feed, dress, and take my 9 year old son and 6 year old daughter to school. After, I’ll normally get to set by 9 AM where my assistants are setting up gear and equipment for that day's shoot. I shoot 4-6 times a month, with each shoot taking 1-3 days, plus many days of production before or after.
One of my favorite parts of this business is the creative brainstorming around a new campaign and brand. Thinking outside the box and pushing boundaries are what we are known for both in fashion and television. I normally shoot around 6-12 shots a day. Some require multiple experts, such as set designers, make up artists, stylists, and photo technicians to help me achieve the desired look and feel. A small shoot is about 3-5 people, and a larger one can involve over 100. Most jobs come through my website from clients and businesses all over the world seeking our help with branding, creative direction, and promotion for their newest collection or season. A wonderful thing about working in NYC is that most people love to come here to shoot, but when work requires me to travel I spend on average 4-5 months of the year abroad shooting on location.
You mention one of your favorite things you do is creative brainstorming. From where do you draw inspiration to stay as innovative as your work demands?
I draw inspiration from the beauty I see in everything: from the exotic to the mundane, from politics to the weather. New York City herself is an inspirational place to live in, full of contradictions. You can feel her heartbeat at all times, which is both exciting and sometimes terrifying. When a new client approaches us with a product, we think of how we can do something completely different for them visually or in marketing, or with some luck, both. My greatest love is undoubtedly using photography and film to change hearts and minds about world issues. I’m an ambassador for several charitable causes, such as the Make A Wish Foundation, EDEYO Foundation, the HSUS, and many more. My aim is to win society over by celebrating life and the world we live in, rather than with shock and horror, by telling intimate stories that a viewer can connect with and showing them how they can make a difference. For example, with the HSUS, I successfully lobbied to obtain a complete ban on the import of seal fur. My film, “A Sealed Fate?” and exhibition of photography was used extensively in the campaign. Similar strategies were employed for other campaigns for the EDEYO Foundation in Haiti, and EGPAF in Tanzania.
Besides photography and film, what else are you passionate about? What hobbies do you enjoy in your spare time?
I’m lucky enough to have a job that many people consider to be a hobby, so I still take lots of photos for social media in my spare time. Most recently, I launched an Instagram for my wife and her twin sister, who are extraordinary yogis. I have lots of fun photographing them in unusual contortions juxtaposed with both urban settings and country landscapes. Other than that, I am an avid wine collector and enjoy making things with my hands, such as wood working and rock carving. My son Jack loves all this too, so I have the perfect apprentice to work with.
What's in your everyday carry?
I stuff my pockets with all kinds of things. My Mum loves to tell my kids that she would refuse to empty out my pockets when I was a boy in fear of finding snakes, beetles, and spiders in them! These days you won’t find any more creepy-crawlies, but I do have the same watch my father gave me when I was 11 years old — a stainless steel Rolex Oysterdate. I prefer shirts with French cuffs, so I normally have cufflinks (Tracey Mayer designs my favorite pairs). I carry a damascus steel pocket knife, not for self-defense, but because as a photographer I always have things that need to be cut, opened, or whittled! As a music lover, I never leave home without my old school iPod (160GB version to store my collection). Obviously I carry a camera, and sometimes several, but my go-to is the Sony RX-100. It’s small, sleek, and takes photos the way I see them. I usually carry a flash drive with the last few weeks of work on it just in case. I love the Corsair Flash Survivor Stealth for this — it’s water proof, shock-proof, and looks cool! Speaking of cool, I love my Persol Film Noir sunglasses too. To keep all my tech (including my iPhone) alive, I always carry a Mophie external battery while I’m not near an outlet. Lastly I carry a keychain, but mine has a bottle opener, and a Citibike keyring in case my Land Rover doesn’t start. While I carry a lot of things, I don’t really use a man-bag, but rather, I stuff all of this into my pockets.
Why do you EDC?
When I head out every day, I need to be prepared. Not that I am a survivalist, but I like to be able to get the job done — whether signing a check or cutting tied up plastic cords on set. I grew up with a Swiss Army Knfie in my pocket and I love the idea of preparedness, except now I have to keep a backup battery in my pocket too! I have a deep sense of loyalty to my belongings, like my watch, which I have worn for 32 years. When I find something I like, I stick with it (often buying more than one at a time in case it gets discontinued). In general, when it comes to the overall style of the things I like, I opt for timeless rather than fashionable. I love the concept of being iconic, and I would say that most of the things I love would be considered thus.
Is there a particular item that you’ve been meaning to add to your EDC?
I’m fortunate enough to have better than average eyesight. Despite having 20/10 vision I’ve been meaning to get a really good pair of pocket binoculars for years now. I love looking into the distance and trying to discern what’s what, whether in the Atlas Mountains or out sailing with my father-in-law.
While you’re often recognized for your photography, you’re an author too. Could you tell us about your new book?
I just completed my second book, Models of Influence, published by Harper Collins and on sale in February. It’s about 50 women who reset the course of fashion from the 1940's to today. The book celebrates these extraordinary ladies and delves historically as well as anecdotally in to why and how their specific beauty and personality epitomized an era, giving shape to their generation and affecting the pop culture zeitgeist forever. It's a coffee table book illustrated with hundreds of photographs by many of the worlds leading shooters and a few from me. If you are interested in fashion, beauty, and supermodels, this is the book for you. If you aren’t, check your pulse! You may be dead.
Given your decades of experience in photography, what advice would you offer to aspiring creatives and photographers who are just getting started?
I am asked on a daily basis by young photographers and film makers whether their pictures are good, if I like their portfolios, what they could do better, or what they’re doing wrong. Ultimately, as with any art form, you have to love what you do, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I am not suggesting conceit, but rather a passion for what you are creating that supersedes any single compliment or pat on the back. If you want to be a success, you have to own what you do — or no one else will. While I am happy to give you my two cents on your pictures, that is just my opinion. The bigger question is: do you really like it? Personally, I like images and films that tell a story, that have rich narrative, leading you to fantasize. I believe that it’s possible whether shooting a 6-foot Amazonian supermodel, a boulder in Death Valley, or a crashing wave in Montauk… but you need to approach the shot with the story in mind, rather than hope there’s a story in there after the fact.