|Adam Barker says he wants viewers to feel like they could step into his images. His style and his ability to teach make him a popular workshop leader. To young photographers, he has some excellent advice, “I always tell them three things. Work on your portfolio so you have an established body of work. Then I tell them to take a business class because the hardest part about running a photography business is running a business. And, thirdly, I tell them to learn how to write because everything from a first-impression email to captions for your images to website content matters, and writing skills provide a vehicle through which your images can be published.”|
Adam Barker is a man of needs. He left a steady corporate job because he felt deep down in his bones that he needed to pursue his dream. Now, as a working commercial photographer, he feels the need to do everything in his power to make his business thrive. He also feels the need to avoid mediocrity at all costs; he needs to excel, which he does, because he has found a way to combine the needs of his business with his personal creative needs: photographing the outdoors.
“Landscape is my first love,” he says, “it’s where I fell in love with photography. I’m a stickler on shooting that which you’re passionate about. But, as my business has progressed, it really has taken a backseat to what pays the bills, which is commercial and editorial work. Without my background in landscape photography, I don’t think I would have found the success that I’ve found in my commercial pursuits. It has just helped me establish a style that’s really kind of unique to me.”
Barker’s style remains consistent through both his commercial assignment work—which also keeps him in the outdoors photographing lifestyle and action sports for clients from Nike to Volkswagen—and the landscapes he makes for himself. It’s defined by careful compositions that push the illusion of three-dimensionality and detailed, realistic photographic images that somehow manage to appear too good to be true. He wants viewers to see his photographs and feel a visceral reaction: a need to go there, too.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, at sunset.
“I really try to convey depth and dimension in my photographs,” he continues. “As cliché as it is, I like people to feel as if they could step right into my images—that’s the degree of depth that I shoot for. I’m huge on emphasizing compositional zones and creating that near-far relationship that takes a two-dimensional medium and makes it feel three-dimensional. In my opinion, composition is the rarest expression of who we are as photographers and artists. There are certainly rules to follow when it comes to composition, but I truly believe that one’s own way of seeing is developed over a lifetime of looking through the lens. I want my images to appear unbelievable, yet just barely believable. It’s the sum of the parts that defines 99% of my images—superb light, dynamic composition and engaging subject matter.”
For Barker, engaging subjects frequently means including people—even when he’s making a landscape image for nobody but himself. It’s a simple, straightforward way to make a personal connection with the viewer and draw them into a scene.
“If I’m in a beautiful place,” Barker says, “and I have somebody doing something that’s pertinent to that particular place—if I’m in a mountain scene and they’re hiking or trail running, whatever it might be—it’s changed now. I’ve had this evolution with my imagery where I love it almost as much as just shooting straight scenics.
Angler Rob Wood in Montana.
“Having an active lifestyle component to the imagery kind of closes the loop,” he continues, “because I’ve been a participant in these outdoor activities my entire life. I think there are lots of people who look at a pretty picture and they’re just like, ‘Eh, it’s okay, but it’s just a pretty picture.’ However, once you put somebody in it doing something that these people can relate to—maybe they’re a fisherman, or they love hiking or trail running or camping, or maybe they have a cabin in the woods, or they go on a ski vacation—all of a sudden they can relate to the image on an entirely different level. It kind of opens the door to them in terms of appreciating the image, and maybe the medium of photography, in general.”
For example, Barker made a photograph of a beautiful sunset over a river bend in Montana [previous page]. It’s one of his favorite places, and it surely could stand on its own without a human element anywhere to be found. But the subtle inclusion of a fly fisherman changes the overall impact of the image. It’s a shot the photographer nearly missed.
“This is an image of one of my absolute favorite stretches of water on the planet,” Barker says. “Montana not only is an angler’s paradise, it’s also a photographer’s heaven. Believe it or not, this was, by most accounts, a second-best photo shoot. The previous night I watched one of the most glorious sunsets I had ever seen, from the comfort of a diner bench in West Yellowstone. I was holding back tears between bites of my hamburger. I guess Mother Nature took pity on me, as this evening produced an exceptionally beautiful sunset, as well. Fly-fishing and landscape photography couldn’t be better suited to each other. Fly-fishing has taken me to some of the most spectacular locations this planet has to offer, and the sport itself is incredibly aesthetic. In my opinion, it’s the perfect marriage of sport and landscape.”
Small cactus in Joshua Tree National Park, California.
Adding people to a landscape does make more work for the photographer. Sometimes he’s able to piggyback a personal shoot onto a commercial gig, but more often than not he has to take on the preproduction for himself and recruit models and subjects who are ready, willing and able to go into the wild at a moment’s notice, when the weather and light are just right. So, it’s important that shoots like these are as much fun as they are aesthetically rewarding.
“Most of the time,” Barker explains, “unless it’s a paid commercial or editorial shoot, these athletes or models are just out there because they love it. There is incentive for them—if they have sponsors, for instance, if they’re a skier and they’re sponsored—if they get published with legible logos, they get paid. It’s an ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’ sort of thing. However, with a lot of these shots, they’re simply out there because they love it. And that’s where it’s important to them to have a photographer who can make it fun and enjoyable because they’re not getting rich, I’m not getting rich, but we’re both out there having fun doing it. It does take foresight, forethought and some planning to make these things happen.”
Because his commercial work often involves active lifestyle photographs made in the outdoors, it’s not uncommon for Barker’s personal and professional needs to overlap. He works to capitalize on every opportunity for convergence in order to shoot for himself.
“I had the stars align for a week this past year,” he explains, “when I shot the campaign for Manfrotto’s new BeFree travel tripod. For seven days we took a motor home through California and visited some of the most iconic photo locations in the state. It was a dream job—other than the fact that we had super-clear skies for an entire week, which is tough for landscape photography. But I was shooting purely landscapes; I was doing what I would be doing if I were just by myself, but I was getting paid for it. It was just a dream. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another job like that.”
Skier Julian Carr in the Wasatch backcountry, Utah. Barker’s action photos stand out because of the way he incorporates the landscape in his images.
Barker’s enthusiasm for outdoor photography has always led him to make time to put himself in the landscape. Whenever the opportunity arises, he’s out shooting. It serves as a model for other photographers who struggle to find the time and energy to get outdoors. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“When I was working in PR, I had a great job in the ski industry,” he says. “I would travel around the country to major markets and meet with media. Those appointments were midday, so that left sunrise and sunset open. Whether I was in San Francisco or New York or Seattle or Chicago, wherever it might be, I would take advantage of these opportunities and I’d do my research beforehand and I would schedule a couple of shoots at sunrise and sunset. It sure made for some long trips, and some serious midday business meeting comas, but I was fortunate to be traveling to these places on somebody else’s dollar. If I did my research up front, I was able to get some great shooting in, as well.
“For instance, the first and only time I’ve been to White Sands National Monument,” he says, “which still remains one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to for shooting landscape photographs, it was because I had a bunch of media visits in Santa Fe. So I built in a day or two on the front end of the trip and drove down in the middle of the night to White Sands and got a motel room. I had an amazing day and a half.”
Although his personal/professional mix keeps him perpetually outdoors, the difference between photographing for himself and for a client is night and day. On assignment, Barker is first and foremost functioning as part of a creative team, and ultimately he’s subservient to the photographic needs of his customers and their shot list. So when it comes to shooting his landscapes, one of the things he enjoys most is free time in the wild, serving nothing but his own creative needs.
“When I’m in my landscape mode,” he says, “and it’s just me, that’s what I love so much about landscape. I’m not reliant upon anything other than Mother Nature and myself. I guess there’s something really satisfying to know that if the image doesn’t work out, it’s because of my shortcomings. As depressing as that may sound to some photographers, I think it’s really great because we can always improve upon our own weaknesses, as opposed to battling something else.”
You can see the full range of Adam Barker‘s photography, from landscapes to commercial advertising images, at www.adambarkerphotography.com.