Nigel Barker—the renowned photographer, America’s Next Top Model judge, and The Face host who sits front row at New York Fashion Week—puts his expertise to pen and paper (and photograph) for a new book, Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion.
If the name on the cover of Nigel Barker's new book isn't enough to persuade you to open it, the names inside should do the trick: Barker examines models from the 1940s through today, like Twiggy, Janice Dickinson, and Elle Macpherson, using gorgeous, glossy photographs and blurbs that speak to each model’s role in history. We sat down with the fashion photography icon to find out more about Models of Influence and which of today's models he thinks will be historically relevant.
What inspired you to make this book?
NIGEL BARKER: Many years of being in the business and working with shows like America’s Next Top Model with Tyra, Paulina, and Twiggy, and of course, The Face with Coco Rocha and Naomi Campbell. I wanted to write a book that didn’t just speak of them as models but really how they have historically been a part of pop culture. Really, when we think about moments in history—as much as we think about politics and war and the religion—we actually do think about fashion and beauty, and how they play a large part. It was an interesting take on the modeling industry. I wanted to pick out 50 women who specifically spoke to women in each generation and each era, and transcended the modeling business.
If you had to choose one iconic model over the past 70 years, who would it be and why?
NB: Even when I came up with 50 women, that was very difficult to do. When I first did the book and I started writing out who I wanted to write about, I came up with a list that was over 150 women. The criteria became, which women really transcended a moment? If you think [about] the 1940s when you go right back to the very, very beginning and the very first women were on the covers on magazines—women like Bettina Graziani and China Machado and Dorian Leigh—they were at the forefront of modeling; they set it all up straight after the war. They were the original supermodels so to speak, and their stories are very interesting because it was during a time when the whole world was grieving from World War II. People were used to rationing; the last thing that people were used to was the glamorous life of a model.
What up-and-coming models—people who are just starting out today—do you think people will look back on and think, "Wow. She was really iconic for that time period"?
NB: When you’re in the moment, it is quite hard to tell; is this person iconic or not? But what you can say about someone like a Cara Delevingne or a Kate Upton, even Coco Rocha—what is happening right now is different from every period. What is happening is that these models are being selected almost as much, if not more so, by the public than they are by the designers and the editors. In the past a photographer or an editor or a designer would find a muse, or find some girl, they would do something to her, and they would turn her into a star. Now we have social media, and these girls will have millions of followers, and an advertiser and an editor has a lot of the work already done for them as far as selecting a girl because they know she comes with an instant fan base.
Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion by Nigel Barker.
Different looks define different decades. Is there any one look that is in right now for models?
NB: This particular time we are in right now is a time unlike any other. If you go through history, there really were distinct looks of makeup and styles that really defined an era. But right now, you’ve got a mixing pot of all kinds of things. You’ve got short models, tall models, voluptuous models, skinny models; this is all sort of happening all at one time. You’ve got all models of all shapes and sizes and colors and from all different parts of the world. I think it is a very transitional time, and a much more democratic scenario.
Going back to the whole thing about decades being associated with certain looks—which decade had your favorite look?
NB: Well, I mean there are some obvious moments, which I think everyone loves. I think everyone has a soft spot for the ‘60s. You know, the over-the-top makeup and the dramatic eyes. I think it was a very special time because it was a big time for emancipation for women. Before that, women were sort of stereotyped as over-glamorous and regal in the ‘50s. Very forced. And in the swinging ‘60s it was like—to hell with it. If we want to cut all of our hair off, we will. If we want to look like boys, we will; it was saucy, it was naughty.
In your opinion, which decade had the worst look?
NB: [Laughs] From a makeup standpoint, the ‘70s were really kind of tacky and in-your-face. That being said, there’s a time and a place for everything—it speaks to the moment and speaks to what was happening and the world at large. Once we got over the [women’s rights] protests, it was kind of like we got what we wanted.
You are a very talented fashion photographer. How do you know when a model has the "It" factor?
NB: There is an awareness that they have in front of the camera; it comes from within. You look at them and you see that there’s a thought process going on inside of their bodies and their minds. […] And a lot of people ask, "Why is she the supermodel? She is not the prettiest one." And, obviously, they are all kind of pretty—but what is it that makes that person a superstar? I remember Kate Moss when she was 14, 15 years old; in London I was actually modeling with her. And she was really just a young kid, but she had an intensity that was intoxicating. And I think that is something that so many of these girls have, this determination and energy and motivation level that is very attractive and charismatic. And it translates onto camera.
Did you ever photograph any models before they made it big?
NB: Tori Praver. I wouldn’t say I discovered her, but she came to my studio, not with an agency but with her mother, and I remember she walked in and she got a go-see. […] She set up an appointment with one of my assistants and they were like "Nigel, you need to see this girl". And I looked at her from a distance and I remember her wearing sort of wrong clothing. Like not fashionable at that moment—sort of like bad jeans and sneakers and some weird jacket. But you could just see in her face, she looked up and there was a charm there and a sweetness and an absolute command in the way she held her body. And we began to take her pictures and in that moment I knew, just the way she looked at the camera; it was magnetic.
Is there any iconic model that you have always wanted to photograph but never have?
NB: I have never photographed Linda Evangelista and she has always been one of my favorite faces ever. The comedian ability of her face is extraordinary. I am still working on that. I am friends with Naomi [Campbell] and I am friends with Christy [Turlington] and I was talking to them wondering if there was any way to convince her of a reunion of the trinity—the three of them to come together again and do something.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY © MARCUS BROOKS, NIGEL BARKER LLC (HEADSHOT)