When I last spoke to photographer and former America's Next Top Model judge Nigel Barker a couple of months ago, he was preparing to begin filming the debut season of his new Adorama series. Entitled "Top Photographer," the show aims to find the next emerging talent of the photo industry, with prizes including $50,000 worth of equipment and an exhibition in N.Y.C. Before the first of five episodes goes live via YouTube tomorrow, November 1, I caught up with Barker to gain further insight into what we can expect from the series.
Selecting the Candidates
It was always going to be a tricky task selecting photographers that not only had standout portfolios, but who were also suitable for a TV show format. Unlike many photography competitions whereby candidates simply have to submit a few images, this lot will have their every effort filmed as they move through weekly challenges. In an effort to establish those suitable, the hopefuls who made it through the initial cull of photo entries were required to send in a short 30-second video of themselves detailing what it was that inspired them to become a photographer. Interesting, because I know that I, and many of my photographer friends, much prefer to work behind the camera, and are completely wooden if asked to talk on video.
When I ask about the video entries, Barker tells me he was surprised at the level of confidence many had when speaking in front of a camera, something he attributes to what he calls this "selfie world" we live in. It seems that part of being a photographer these days is having the prowess to market oneself on the Internet and across social media, and much of this goes beyond merely posting images. Rather, it’s often done by way of video blogging.
Saying that, it’s easy to appear confident on video when it’s just yourself and the camera in your bedroom. I was interested to know more about the effect having a full film crew, as well as the watchful eye of the judges, had on the hopeful photographers. "Some people were great in the videos they filmed of themselves — really comfortable. But in person, their character wasn’t quite the same," Barker said. Of course, one of the biggest differentiating factors between "Top Photographer" and other photography competitions that have come before it is the dynamics of it being a TV show. Barker makes the point that he could have simply picked a winner based on viewing photo entries online, but there is an element of "watchability" to consider. And it’s true, as an audience we want someone to root for — someone that’s interesting to watch work. "From my experience," said Barker, "the majority of really great photographers have personality." Any photographer working in fashion, in portraits, in sports, or along similar lines can likely tell you the importance of having a personality, and using it accordingly. Taking great photos is only half the battle. Networking and being able to interact with people is also instrumental to success.
Being an All-Rounder
Last time we talked through the format, Barker told me the process was going to be every bit the learning experience that it was a competition. What’s really piquing my interest about this series is that entrants, and indeed the winner, are expected to be all-rounders who can adapt well to anything. So I was keen to know, would he be touching on the business, technology, and networking side of things? I ask, not only because I think it’s every bit as important as technical skills, but because I notice the judging lineup. Aside from guest judges that include supermodel Coco Rocha and fashion photographer Emily Soto, on the panel for episode three are serial technology entrepreneurs Jeremy and Tom Jauncey. The pair are the brains behind Beautiful Destinations, and were booked as guest judges to provide their expertise as company directors that frequently seek out photographic talent. In Barker's words, the duo hire lots of photographers, and in their episode we learn more about what it is exactly that they look for when casting photographers.
The Variation in Entries
When it comes to the challenges, Barker is looking for someone who can adapt their skills and photographic style to any kind of photo genre. Looking at the entires of the five finalists will give you a clue: They include a studio portrait, a documentary travel image, and a more conceptual location photo. Naturally, I had many burning questions in regards to how exactly the format will work, and how candidates will be assessed fairly, since we can expect that not everyone will be an expert in every field. It’s hard, because one candidate’s area of expertise is always going to come up before another's. Barker said, "My point to them is this: Really, the best photographers are people who can adapt no matter what. They’re people who can apply the same idea from one genre to everything — [their images are] not going to be radically different and [they won’t] have different styles for everything. If you’re a still life photographer, get a model and treat her like a vase and light her like so. It may be odd, but it’ll be consistent."
Barker admits many of the entries were travel photos, but acknowledges that those sorts of images ultimately boil down to access. That being, Barker said, "If you’re new or upcoming, it can be hard to get access to models, or people worthy of being photographed, who will naturally make your picture look good." In regards to many of the landscape entries, Barker said it was about distinguishing which images were a result of luck, and which were taken by a photographer with a signature style. "OK, is it just because they went to this wicked place and the sun was setting? What did they inject of themselves into that picture? How did they make that picture?"
An interesting twist is that, unlike on Barker's previous TV venture, "America’s Next Top Model," the hopefuls don’t actually get to watch each other partake in the challenges. Until panel, they’ll be completely unaware how their peers performed, or what each of their resulting images came out like.
Each episode will also be touching on post-processing and retouching, an essential part of being a photographer — arguably just as important as having the eye for a photograph in the first place. The photographers were sometimes tasked with editing their own images, but in an interesting twist, they are sometimes judged on their raw images, straight from the camera.
The first episode of "Top Photographer" will be available to stream on Adorama’s YouTube Channel tomorrow, November 1, starting at 11 pm ET. You can see details of all the guest judges, and watch the official trailer below.
- Ben Lyons - Chief Content Officer for Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune and television, radio, and online host and producer
- David Bergman - Canon Explorer of Light with 13 Sports Illustrated covers to his credit
- Pamella Roland - renowned fashion designer
- Emily Soto - New York City-based fashion photographer
- Jeremy and Tom Jauncey - technology entrepreneurs, and the masterminds behind Beautiful Destinations
Episodes 4 and 5:
- Coco Rocha - supermodel
- Joe Zee - fashion stylist, journalist, and businessman