Most of us use our cameras to photograph the world around us. Robert Barker does that too, but he also turns his lens to microcosms of his own making. Over weeks and months, he transforms clay, wood, wire and even latex into dioramas that tell stories, first through where the eye is immediately drawn and then further into the detail. What you discover is fantasy and curiosity, yes, but there is also isolation, longing and humour – and there’s no two ways about it, Robert is a funny guy.
“I’ve been working on… a tiny pile of pallets!” he laughs, holding the little wooden replicas in his hand. “And why not? I designed a jig to make them with. I literally sat there and measured it all out. I’m such a nerd.” He’s not. In fact, Robert is a CTO, tech and digital marketing consultant – a professional technology problem solver, if you will. And, as you might imagine, he doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands. However, he has been drawn to stagecraft, model-making and special effects since he was child, the result of his parents’ business, located on the sites of the UK’s famous Pinewood and Bray Studios. “From a young age I was on film sets and studios. And the thing I really loved was the special effects department. My dad would take me down there and say, ‘show my son what you do’.” Robert spent hours watching artists sculpting monsters and models out of clay and latex. “I really wanted to do that,” he remembers fondly. But his school had other ideas and poured cold water on his dream of working in special effects, “so I just kind of abandoned it for many years.”
However, around ten years ago, during a period of high stress, he discovered that painting miniature figures was a really good way of easing anxiety (“you pick up a thing, you paint it, and your mind is focused for a couple of hours and doesn’t have any space for the horror.”). This was pretty effective, and he had no intention of taking it further – or getting his camera involved. But a simple statement from a friend took him down a marvellous photographic rabbit hole. He said, “it’s really hard to photograph painted miniatures.” This was all the encouragement Robert needed and he started to work out how to photograph them, “initially just on a technical level – how do you get a decent depth of field? How do you make them look reasonable?” But it wasn’t long before he began to build small scenes around them, using things that he had in his home.