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Phlearn-Interviews-Martin-Barker
Jul 10, 2013

Phlearn Interviews Martin Barker

Martin Barker is a 27 year old photographer from Northampton in England. He moved to Dundee in Scotland when he was around 5 or 6 years old.

Martin is currently residing between Glasgow and London, however, this does not mean he stays in one place! He has shot campaigns in places like Iceland, Thailand and New York. Having worked alongside photographers such as Ryan McGinley and Amelia Troubridge, Martin has a gained a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom. Martin was also recently featured in the book “The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market”.

His photography has been recognized for his ability to “capture and distil the feel of youth”, and Martin describes his work as “beautiful, youthful, and raw.”

Join us as Martin shares with us his most recent images shot in Thailand, and how much editing goes into his work. He shares what his experiences were like working with Ryan McGinley and AmeliaTroubridge, how he has developed a style, and he also tells us about his recent feature in the book “The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market.”

This is a great interview that you won’t want to miss.

How did you become interested in photography?

Well I used to study creative writing and literature (this may be long winded but i’ll get there in the end, I promise). I had a full time job and was studying at nights and a lot of the time I would go to the local book/coffee shop straight after work as it was open until around 10pm. This meant I could drink coffee and write, which as everyone knows is how most writers work. So when I needed a break I would just walk around the store and look at different books.

One day I was doing my usual route around the store and a book caught my eye. I picked up the book and it fell open, and on the page was a picture of a semi-erect penis in a hot dog bun. I closed the book immediately as I was scared of what people would think. The book was called Terryworld. Over the coming weeks I would always go back to that book and go through it over and over again. I never bought the book, I just always looked through it and whenever I could showed it to my friends and was all like, “look how awesome this is!” but they were always grossed out by it.

Around 3 years after that I had moved to Glasgow, I was working a shitty job with unsociable hours and I didn’t really know anyone, I had also just come out of quite the bad relationship and was kind of out of the loop in regards to meeting new people. I had gotten into a terrible routine of sitting in the house and doing pretty much nothing. Then one day I was in a bookstore and I recognized the cover of Terryworld. I picked it up and bought it. Took it home and went through it for hours. The pictures looked fun, raw and real. They looked like the life I wanted, carefree, crazy and gritty. I googled Terry and saw that he took most of his photographs on an old Yashica T4 film camera. So I thought if he can do that with just an old film camera, so can I. So I bought a cheap camera. The camera gave me a reason to go out into the world. To speak to people. To experience new things. It was a ticket to experience. Basically, the reason I got into photography is because I needed a reason to be out in the world again, I needed a reason to be around people and the camera gave me that reason.

Do you have any formal training in photography?

After a year of taking pictures I decided to go and study photography. I lasted just under a year and dropped out 1 month from the end to go and work with Ryan McGinley in New York. I learned a lot about using lights in college but more importantly I had to do all different types of photography and it taught me very quickly what I didn’t want to do. It also taught me that school wasn’t for me.

You’ve shot campaigns in Iceland, Thailand, and New York, and even though you live in Glasgow, you spend quite a lot of your time travelling to specific destinations for your work.How do you like spending so much time on the road? Is it fulfilling, exciting? Or is it more stressful?

I love it. I can’t complain about it one bit. In the last year my work has taken me to Paris, Iceland, Berlin, London, Thailand, Belgium and New York. I literally have nothing to complain about. It’s incredibly fulfilling and exciting. I get to see the world and go and make beautiful photographs and spend time with amazing people. I couldn’t ask for more. The days are long and granted hot and sometimes somewhat stressful but the way I see it is like this. I worked in retail for 7 years and my job was by no means hard, but it was soul destroying. However, no matter how bad it gets taking pictures, and I mean, when the equipment fails, when the flights are delayed and I lose a day, when I haven’t slept for 26 hours and have to shoot for a further day in 38 degree heat, when a pack of wild dogs are surrounding me and my team and we have to back slowly away from a set and sit in a car until they disappear; despite all of those things, it’s still not as bad as my best day working in retail.

You lived in New York for 3 months, and during those 3 months you worked with photographer Ryan Mcginley.What was it like to work for him?

Ryan is hands down one of the nicest and most approachable people I’ve ever met. He’s also a work horse with a clear and very focused vision of what he want’s to create. Everyone who works at his studio is amazing. I learnt so much working there. Especially about how an artist works. Just watching him work is kind of magical. Seeing him interact with people, the way he sees light and colour and form and composition. It taught me a great deal. Working for Ryan made me really understand the importance of having a voice. I mean you look at any of his photographs and you can see him within them. You could lay 1000 random photographs out and place 5 of Ryan’s photographs in and amongst them and I guarantee you would know which were his. His voice is so distinct and beautiful.

What’s the biggest thing you took from your experience working with Ryan?

Sincerity, connection and gesture. If you look at Ryan’s work it’s all sincere. It’s never just a beautiful person in a beautiful place, it’s so much more than that. It’s his connection to the person that puts them at ease, which means the gesture is real, and because of that the picture is always sincere. There is so much depth to his work. There is a real connection to the person he is photographing and that’s something that has stuck with me. Because of it I never just stand anyone in a nice place with nice light and make a nice picture anymore. I get to know them, I explore them, ask them questions and look for that sincerity, connection and gesture.

You’ve also worked with photographer Amelia Troubridge. What was it like working for her?

Amelia has the most amazing energy and drive. Watching her onset, well it’s incredible. She knows exactly what she wants from her subjects and knows how to get it. I remember one time we were shooting some burlesque girls in a really dingy dark basement club in London and it was a nightmare to light and time was ticking on, but she how to light it and exactly where she wanted the girls to stand and how to motivate them to get in the mood for it.

And again, what’s the biggest thing you took from your experience working with Amelia?

That no matter how shitty your day is, how tired you are, how hungry you may be, that it’s your job as a photographer to get the best out of someone. If you can’t be bothered then the subject will certainly not be bothered. She taught me a lot about energy and motivating people.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I am currently continuing my series ‘Born Free’ as well as working for some brands. I’m at a point in my career now where I’m being very selective about what projects I take on. I have to make sure that I am the right person for the job. I don’t see the point in taking on a job where the client asks me to take pictures which aren’t me.

How would you describe your “style”?

Beautiful, youthful and raw. I like gesture and movement. I like the person to forget they are being photographed.

What would you consider to be your “big break”?

I don’t think I’ve had it yet. The problem I find is that I’m always looking to the next thing. Which is good as it keeps me pushing forward. I’m never satisfied.

I mean, I recently shot something for Interview Magazine and the Journalist who wrote the piece that goes along with the pictures messaged me saying, “Here’s the piece. Are you happy?” and I replied, “Yeah, but what’s next?” I think that people look for a big break, and in the rare event it happens you usually find that it’s not sustainable. I want longevity in my career. I’d rather keep pushing forward in incremental steps and improving within that. I want to be able to look back in 10 years and be able to look at a body of work and say, “Right, I can still stand beside this. But what’s next?” The idea of a “big break” kind of scares me as I see people who have them now and again and they sometimes become stagnant because they think they’ve “made it” as an artist. I don’t think you’ve ever “made it”, you have to keep progressing and improving.

What inspires you?

Music and film inspires me a great deal. I like Kanye West a lot, I like his work ethic and drive. He’s always pushing and trying to better himself. I like the fact that he has a vision and he doesn’t care if he comes across as arrogant because at the end of the day it’s the art that matters. It’s also not arrogance in my opinion, it’s focus. I find that film inspires me a great deal too. I love the work of Wes Anderson, the way he uses colour is incredible. I also like Terrence Malick. He’s a visionary. Truly incredible. I have a great circle of friends too, watching them inspires me a great deal. They’re vivacity for life and freedom makes me want to go and make pictures a lot.

What’s your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken?

I recently shot an image for a campaign in Thailand, it’s of a model running through the ocean at sunset. I think it’s the closest to a perfect photograph that I’ve ever taken in my life. The gesture, the water, the pallet, the composition. There’s also another photograph I took on the same trip of the same model and she’s falling through the air against a backdrop of trees. It’s not photoshopped, I mean it has had adjustments but the model really was falling through the air around 8 meters up. I like the freedom of that photograph, the colors and the fact that you can’t really tell why she is falling.

Is there anything you wish you were better at?

I’d like to be able to paint. I think that would be good, to learn about composition and color more.

On your website you have a series of photos titled “Sad, beautiful, tragic.” Can you please tell us about this series of photos?

Sad, beautiful, tragic, is my personal life. It’s pictures of people who are close to me or acts of intimacy, drug use, former lovers, parties and friendships that I have documented. It’s photo journalism. The photographs within that series are snapshots of my life. Often shot on cheap point and shoot cameras. The series is still ongoing and it’ll be ongoing until I die, as I imagine I’ll always want to document my life. (Series Below)

Has the release of any of your photos (especially in Sad, beautiful, tragic) caused any controversy? If so, how do you handle such a thing?

Oh yeah. I remember my mum going crazy at me because I posted a link to Sad, beautiful, tragic on my Facebook. And she was real upset that my young niece or nephew would see it. I just had to tell her that I was an artist and that it wasn’t my job to censor what the children could possibly see, that was their parents job. A lot of other people have reacted negatively to some of the photographs too. It doesn’t effect me to be honest. I can stand beside every photograph in that series and tell someone why I believe it deserves to be seen and shared.

Recently you were featured in the book “The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market“.
Can you tell us about the book and your feature in it?

It was an honour to be interviewed and featured in, ‘The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market,’ I’ve been a big fan of King Adz, the authors work for some time. So for him to ask me to be featured meant a lot. To be featured beside so many amazing photographers was a real honour. Adz, really has his finger on whats going on in contemporary youth culture. He is always looking for new music, new art, new fashion, new film. Because of this, Adz sees that when a brand does something new it’s usually because they have replicated something they have seen from the street. What Adz does is he goes into that, explores it and speaks to the originals, the pioneers, instead of what most people do and take it as the big brand doing something new. Adz sees the direct correlation between what’s going on in the street and whats going on in popular music, fashion, art and film. If you want to really have a firm understanding of advertising as well as what’s really going on I suggest you buy this book.

Your photography has been recognized for your ability to “capture and distil the look and feel of youth”, and I couldn’t agree more with that statement!
How did you develop your style?

The first year and a half of making pictures I didn’t go anywhere without a camera. I pretty much documented everything. Initially people were wary of the camera, but after a while they forgot about it. I just documented things that were going on around me and my life. It’s also about being ballsy enough to make the picture when the opportunity arises. When I first started making pictures all my work was like “Sad, beautiful, tragic”. It was just me documenting my life. Being there when things happen, but after a while I started getting into the idea of making fashion pictures and that taught me a lot about craft and making a scenario and a story, but I found my work was very static and rigid when I made those pictures. It lacked the real element of my personal work. So after that I started to find ways to incorporate both, the human element with the high standard and beauty of a fashion photograph. I started crafting stories and scenarios that I believed the models would be involved in. Since then it’s been an evolution of that. Finding ways to make people forget that I am there. Giving them things to do so they forget to pose and become real.

What’s on your gear list?

Olympus Mju ii. Canon 5d Mark ii, 24/105mm Lens, 50mm 1.4 lens, 28mm 1.8 lens and a 430 ex ii for camera gear. I edit with CS6 and lightroom.

Does a lot of editing go into your work, or is your work just that beautiful straight out of the camera?

I tried to explain this to someone before, and by this I mean the way I edit. A lot of people as well as photographers are under the impression that you can just replicate say an iconic image in post production and therefore it will be the same. This isn’t the case. It has to be an amazing image to start with. Even with the best retouchers in the world, an average image will still be an average image but just maybe a bit more polished. So, to answer your question I can do a lot in post production, but I try to get 99% of the work done in camera. You can’t replicate a real gesture or a real moment of intimacy with photoshop. Also if I want to make a picture with the model falling through the air in a forest I find a way to actually do it. I don’t want to composite in post production. Besides, who wants to be sat behind a computer editing when you can be out making pictures.

Left: Before    Right: After

Left: Before    Right: After

What do you do in your free time when you’re not behind the camera?

I like to spend time with my friends. I spend a lot of time though looking to the next thing, planning the next photograph I want to make or looking at photography books. I find it hard to switch off. I also go to the gym and ride my bike.

How does a photoshoot usually go for you? Some of your editorials look so real and raw that it just makes me think you’re following around a groups party and documenting their night!!

For example with my most recent trip to Thailand. I made sure the team got together before hand. I wanted everyone to be comfortable with each other. I want the models to feel at ease with me so that they eventually forget I’m photographing. So I usually try and do that before hand. I also stay as chilled as possible.

I used to get really worked up before I made pictures but I realized that it wasn’t doing me any favours and it was putting other people on edge also. So now I’m pretty chilled on set. I have quite a clear idea for what I want in a picture. So I have the models do it over and over again until I think I have the picture. I can take a couple of thousand frames to get one perfect photograph. I think one of the Thailand photographs took around 4 hours to make. Just getting them to do the same thing over and over until they eventually forgot about me and were just doing it for real. I also tend to push people, like in Thailand I was pushing the models really hard to do quite strenuous and athletic actions so that they eventually had to forget about me as they were too caught up in their own head. For my Born Free images, me and an assistant will set up the lights and they won’t change for the day, as I want to focus on the subject. I photograph most people for around an hour in that series, taking around 1000 frames just to get that one perfect and real picture of them.

What would you consider to be some of the key elements to the development of your photography?

Working for Ryan McGinley and realizing that I wasn’t just a photographer and that I was an artist. Realizing that I was born an artist was kind of like a revelation for me. I stopped looking at everything like “okay this is a fashion shoot so I have to shoot it like fashion” It made me start asking myself, “what exactly do you want to do here. What picture do you want to make?” and as a result it made me more open and explorative with my work and ideas.

Who are some of your favourite photographers?

Ryan McGinley, Sandy Kim, Terry Richardson, Bruce Webber, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Nick Knight.

What is your favourite type of photography to shoot?

I enjoy shooting my Born Free series as I really get to know the person in that short hour. We really connect and I listen to them. The photograph is almost like an afterthought, a keepsake and a reminder of a really nice conversation. I like making those pictures as I get to learn so much about someone, it’s pretty unreal.

Can you tell us about your most recent campaign in Thailand?

My campaign in Thailand was for the brand Abandon Ship Apparel. It was a 9 day shoot with 2 travel days and I was given complete freedom with the campaign. Which is pretty much a dream. So before hand I pulled around 70 reference images to show them. I wanted the pictures to have no real nod contemporary culture apart from the clothes themselves. The images had to be a celebration of freedom and youth. With lots of movement and exploration, but also a sense of scale and space.

We spent a night in Bangkok before we took a flight to Ko Samui, then we took a ferry to the island of Ko Pha Ngan where 90% of the shoot took place. We had done a lot of research as to what was available in Ko Pha Ngan and luckily we had contacted with a National Geographic photographer who had photographed there numerous times, so he gave us a lot of guidance on where was secluded and good to shoot in. Everyday we would get up early, talk about where I wanted to go that day and the sort of pictures I would like to make, then we would go to these places and explore. It was a very physically demanding trip for everyone involved. We averaged around 2 photographs a day as we had to make sure the images were perfect. That doesn’t sound like a lot but we would take up to 4 hours to make one picture. I also pushed the models as much as possible to get the best out of them. I demanded a great deal from them physically and mentally. Luckily though Ko Pha Ngan is a paradise and it’s hard to be annoyed in paradise.

What was the most interesting assignment you’ve ever gotten?

Thailand was interesting as it was complete creative freedom for me. The brand, Abandon Ship Apparel, trusts me completely now so they asked me what I wanted to create. So that was interesting. Riding along in an open top jeep at 5am chasing the sunrise whilst a model holds onto the back and you slide around the back making pictures was pretty interesting. Also figuring out a way to have the model actually falling from around 8 meters up without her dying was also an interesting task.

When shooting on location do you typically bring lights with you, or are your on location shots usually done with natural light?

If I can take lights I will. I like to be able to control what’s going on. For Thailand this wasn’t an option though so I worked with available light. Luckily the light in Thailand is beautiful. I made sure we shot at Sunrise and Sunset to get that perfect light.

What’s your proudest moment as a photographer?

When I received the confirmation email that I had gotten the space as an intern at Ryan Mcginely’s studio was pretty amazing. I was in London and I was assisting a photographer on a campaign and I was hungry, dehydrated and run down after an 18 hour day. I knew I was going to be told that day that I had either gotten the position or not. So I had been really tense. I was outside a restaurant where the team was about to have dinner and I kept refreshing my emails over and over and over and finally the email came into my inbox and for a split second I paused as I couldn’t open it out of fear. Then I opened it and saw that I had gotten the position. It validated my worth as a photographer back then as I had to fly over to New York for an interview the week before where I had to show them my portfolio and talk about my experience and why I liked Ryan’s work. It’s very competitive at Ryan’s studio so it really made me feel like I was moving forwards in my career.

Any big plans for the future?

I’m in the process of organizing an exhibition of my personal work, it will be a combination of unseen Born Free images and some unseen images from Sad, Beautiful, Tragic. I also plan on making a book.

Any advice to offer us fellow photographers?

Go with your gut at all times. It’s your greatest tool. That doesn’t mean don’t go out of your comfort zone because I believe it’s important to do that. But if an image doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. And be ruthless with the edit. If you spend a day shooting something and you don’t get exactly what you want, if it isn’t perfect – don’t use it. I see a lot of photographers with little to no quality control on their work. You have a duty to curate your own catalogue and make sure only the best work is put out there. Oh and cameras don’t matter, having good gear only gives you more options, it doesn’t mean you’re a a bigger and better photographer. It just means you have a bigger and better bank balance.
To keep up with Martin and his work you can do so on his Website, Blog, and/or Twitter.

Interviewed By: Angela Butler

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