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Nigel Barker: man in a suitcaseNigel Barker: man in a suitcase

Nigel Barker on location

Jack Yan interviews Nigel Barker, photographer and America’s Next Top Model judge
From issue 14 of Lucire

 

LUCIRE often says with some pride that it promoted, on its online news pages, America’s Next Top Model before anyone suspected it would be a hit. We took a chance on Tyra Banks, the first New Zealand-owned magazine to do so. And as we watch the series, we note that the show always has one gentleman, whom we can genuinely describe using that word, rather than the usually sarcastic way in which it is heard delivered in the United States Congress.

That gentleman is Nigel Barker, photographer, contracted originally to do a single episode, shooting the finalists of America’s Next Top Model. We see the beautiful (Banks), stereotypical (Janice Dickinson), and atypical (any one of a plethora of guest judges), but Barker has surfaced above them, without trying.

It’s not just the British accent, but it may be to do with a sense of humility. Women and gay men alike speak of the ex-model’s attractiveness at this office, showing that understated wins adoration. And E! Entertainment has saw fit to do a True Hollywood Story on Barker and the Top Model crew—always a sign you’ve made it.

‘People hate it, love it, pretend not to watch it, and find themselves watching every episode on VH1 during their frequent marathon Top Model weekends. … Who am I to judge? The viewers obviously like it!’

Barker began modelling in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a teenager heading into his early 20s. ‘[I] didn’t spend more than three weeks in one location for a whole decade,’ he recalled. He might not have been a secret agent, but he was essentially a Man in a Suitcase, ‘thoroughly enjoying the jet-set lifestyle!’

But the routine became tiresome. Unlike the wealthy who are the subject of the Hellos and OKs of this world, Barker’s travel was done at the whim of agencies, deciding ‘where you are going, when and for how long.’

Barker said, ‘I desperately felt the need to put down roots and have a home.’

He doesn’t regret the time, and how could one? ‘I had a lot of fun as a male model … the girls, the travel, the money … the girls, the travel, the money—sorry, I just said that.

‘Well, you see, that was also the problem. I needed and wanted a job. A career, something I could build on and feel proud of. And quite frankly, 10 years of modelling for a guy is more than enough vanity time!’

His friends were, at the time, finishing college and university, and ‘beginning to make more than me and, more importantly, they had a future.’

The fictional Derek Zoolander may have a school to spend his post-modelling days, but Barker needed a trade. And what better than one which was also a hobby?

There must be an entrepreneurial streak in Barker for he turned his one hobby into an industry. ‘Lucky for me, I was surrounded by lots of folk that wanted their picture taken. And there you have it. I started getting very serious about portraiture and I had a plethora of beautiful people to hone my skills. Not to mention I had been photographed by many of the best and let’s just say I kept a watchful eye over what was taking place.’

In 1998, Barker put down roots and chose Manhattan, with the only place ‘large enough and cheap enough’ was in the Meat Packing District, an area he describes as ‘fetid’.

Being English, Barker is the master of euphemisms: ‘The space we took had previously been a place of ill repute.’ We did not probe him on how ill. But on the ground floor, there remained a fully functioning meat market.

Nevertheless: ‘I had 3,000 ft² with skylights and my own little slice of the Big Apple.’

America was his choice because he ‘was crazy in love and followed my heart to New York. It turned out to be the perfect fit for me, too’: New Yorkers were more open to his change in career. After conquering New York, ‘the world has become a little easier to crack,’ said Barker.

The travel slowed momentarily, but as his photographic career gained momentum, it was Man in a Suitcase time again. However, now it’s first class, ‘95 per cent of the time’, and, most importantly, it’s on his whim, not a model agent’s.

With his brother working in Hong Kong, Barker has had the opportunity to visit there due to the success of America’s Next Top Model. ‘My taste for bird’s nest, shark’s fin soup and abalone is definitely growing!’

This jet-set lifestyle has not resulted in a favourite “place” for Barker. ‘As cliché as it sounds, it is never the place that does it for me, but whom I am with,’ though he admits to a penchant for French Polynesia, which he describes as ‘the most beautiful island paradise on earth.

‘You could drop your camera and take a good picture!’ he exclaimed. Not that he would. Not when among those cameras is a Hasselblad H1, one of the favourites of this magazine—the digital one costs over $20,000, and that’s without the lens. It’s like buying a Maybach with no engine.

However, Barker does not come across as a man who indulges in excessive toys. He may have an H1, but ‘They are tools and hopefully never the cause of a good shot.’

He accepts digital photography is ‘here to stay,’ but ‘computers have yet to match the elegance of celluloid. But when shooting commercially, [digital] makes sense, so we try whatever is out there and new to stay ahead of the curve.’

This “cameras as tools” approach does mean that Barker has worn the same watch, a Rolex, since he was 12, a gift from Col Gaddafi of Libya.

As we overcame the shock of the origins of the Rolex, he explained: ‘My father had put together a deal where Libyan sewage workers came to the uk to learn how to treat sewage. … For helping them with such a dirty job, what better than a few Rolexes and rugs? It was pretty fly walking around at my boarding school showing off my Rolex Oyster aged 12.’

Now 34, he continues to wear the same, and they ‘don’t break and never go out of style.’

A father of a one-year-old, Barker said that ‘coming home has never been sweeter.’

As we concluded the interview, on a Sunday when he was kept more than busy with family commitments, Barker promised that Lucire would be kept abreast of any announcements. We felt bad we took him away from his quality time, knowing that sooner or later, it would be Man in a Suitcase time again. •

 

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Nigel Barker

Nigel and Cristen Barker
Main photograph: Barker in action on a location shoot. Top: Nigel Barker. Above: With his wife, Cristen.

 

‘People hate it, love it, pretend not to watch it, and find themselves watching every episode on VH1 during their frequent marathon Top Model weekends. … Who am I to judge?’

 

 

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