PORTLAND (NEWS CENTER Maine) -- When America's Next Top Model debuted in 2003 on an unknown network called UPN, most critics couldn't have predicted the success it would become. Nigel Barker, a fashion model and photographer, watched that very first season, intrigued by the concept of reality television.
Barker was eventually invited onto the show and remained a regular judge for 18 seasons.
Barker was in Portland in 2018 for a local photography contest held by AC Hotel by Marriott Portland, in which he judged a slew of photographs of the city taken by Maine photographers. The top five finalists were given the opportunity to walk the city with Barker and get a hands-on lesson in photography.
I spoke with Barker at the hotel about the success of 'America's Next Top Model,' and his new online show, 'Top Photographer,' which also puts contestants through challenges and eliminations. As a judge, you almost expect a certain tone from Barker, but he was warm, welcoming, and genuine. He even admits that judging isn't about being critical.
"It's always - for me - about being constructive and I learn so much from everybody else's work," says Barker. "We all see things differently. I look for emotion in everything."
Barker's first introduction to photography was when he was 9-years-old and got his first "proper camera," a 1957 Kodak Brownie his mother had picked up from a flea market. "It took big 120 film, which was quite expensive. You'd load it in but you would shoot one at a time," says Barker, who also admits it helped him hone his craft. "You, as a result, learn to appreciate each photograph because you can't afford lots of film. So you go, 'Okay, I've only got 10 shots, I've got to make each one of them count.'"
Barker says that focus is something a lot of people lack thanks to phone cameras and apps like Instagram, which have allowed anyone to try their hand at photography, taking multiple shots just to pick out the perfect one. And while some photographers see that as a form of competition, Barker says, "Bring it on."
He is focused when he takes a photograph, something he showed the world when he became a household name through "America's Next Top Model," a job he almost turned down.
"Everyone kind of loved it, but also loved to hate it," he jokes about how over the top the show seemed. "But actually, we also realized just how fun it was, and the world was changing. Social media was in its infancy. Things like Instagram didn't exist. You could see reality TV for the very first time was the beginning of social media, it was the beginning of people saying, 'I kind of like real life, I kind of like watching what other people do.' It doesn't always have to be fiction, in fact reality is often stranger than fiction."
As for Barker's social media, he understands that the real photos get the most interaction, instead of the staged beauty shots. "It's far more popular to see the behind-the-scenes on Instagram than it is necessarily of the picture itself... social media is more of a diary about what's happening in your life than it is about a portfolio of your best work."