Robert Barker’s Little Worlds

Robert Barker builds by hand every element of the tales he wants to tell. Then, when they are ready, he picks up his camera and brings them to life.
A tiny blue door and doorframe sits in the middle of what appears to be a woodland floor at night. The door is wide open. Revealing more trees, only these trees are illuminated in a golden light.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

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.

A nightime scene with a huge silver moon as a backdrop. To the right is a small shack-type house with a sloped roof and a single window. To the right and centre, is a tree trunk and there is foliage in front of the moon. In the front left shadows stands a small silver robot.

© Robert Barker

A tiny robot stands between a large granite-looking block on the right and four decorative columns on the left. The scene has a dusty, red orange glow.

© Robert Barker

A behind the scenes shot of Robert’s little worlds. On a white table in a cluttered workshop sits an assortment of miniature shrubs, twigs and soil, as he recreates a woodland scene. In the centre of the table, among the assortment sits a tiny white door.

“The advantage of doing it for photography over anything else is what the camera can’t see does not exist.” © Robert Barker

Another behind the scenes shot. This time the table is viewed from the right-hand side and has a white backdrop clipped to it. Again, there is soil and moss, but also miniature trees.

“I get a lot more pleasure out of things I’ve actually built. And it’s not just about the building, it’s about building it, photographing it and lighting it ­– the full thing.” © Robert Barker

“The interesting thing is just how much I’m making myself learn. Because I could go the lazy route and buy myself a 3D printer or use online services. which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I’m trying to make everything from scratch.” This means that Robert spends a lot of time sourcing materials, learning new techniques, building his designs and experimenting with photography. “Part of it was seeing what I could do with photography in a very small space,” he explains. “Which is hard because, realistically, you need space for focal length and light distance. Ideally, a minimum of four metres by four metres. I was seeing what I could do in a two and a half metre by two and a half metre space, on a board that was a metre by a metre.” It was a challenge. Particularly when friendly explorers discovered something new to play with. “I would have to put something together very quickly and strip it down as soon as I’d finished because our cats are lovely, but they are very stupid and will eat whatever it is on there,” he laughs.

“Um…So, I built a studio in the garden,” he admits sheepishly. Since moving into a bigger space, Robert has been able to keep works in progress alive, as well as having a space where he can craft the objects over time. It feels highly organic, kind of like growing stories, but at the same time bringing new learning to every composition. By his own admission, he has spent small fortunes on books on lighting and stagecraft and spent hundreds of hours working out how certain materials respond or the best way to light a particular scene. “Lighting is everything,” he says. “I can sit in a room for four hours and carefully adjust six different lights with gel settings and every modifier under the sun. I am not trying to replicate reality but create something filmic.” He takes inspiration from the narrative approach of traditional folk tales but flavoured with the style of the kind of moody, half-lit scenes that are resonant of late eighties, early nineties sci-fi, such as the X-Files. “Folk stories are really fantastic at producing narrative in a very short amount of information. You can read a book of folk stories and some of them are one paragraph long with an illustration that completely sums it up. It’s a great way to learn about narrative imagery.”

Left: A portrait of Robert Barker against a black background. He looks to the sky, so that the light hits his nose and forehead, while the rest is in the shadows. He has curly hair, tied back into a ponytail and wears a dark t-shirt. On the right, a quote that reads: “When I first started it was kind of overwhelming because I looked at what I was doing and then at what someone else was doing and thought, ‘that’s amazing! I can’t achieve that’. The truth is you can. It’s just perseverance and practice and experimentation.”

He freely admits that every day is a school day. Or night, as is often the case when you have a passion and a day job. Robert explains; “I wanted to do night shots with the moon in the background. So, I went out and photographed the moon, then printed it on tracing paper, cut a circle out of the black card, stuck the photo on the back of it. I used two softboxes to fire the light through to make it look roughly like the moon.” It was a tough shot and his research found him having a conversation with a man who does stagecraft on how to balance the scene – how to get the stars and moon to work together. The upshot? “Don’t do stars,” he laughs. “Stars are far more three dimensional than people think. [In staged scenes] You can have stars or the moon. You can’t have stars and the moon. Otherwise, you use Photoshop.” And this is not an option for Robert. There are plenty of technical struggles that he could overcome easily with editing, but for him this would defeat the object. “Pretty much everything is straight out of the camera. I will tweak the exposure. But no more than that.” He uses Canon EOS 5D and EOS R5 cameras with EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and 24-70mm IS USM lenses, as well as Godox lights and flashes, an “incredibly important” Aodelan Remote Trigger and a lot of filters, gels, tripods, stands and reflectors – all testament to the investment that he has made into his art over the years.

With the new studio protecting his work from marauding felines, Robert now feels that his years of ‘experimenting’ can move into a more focused place. “I’ve sketched out about twenty or thirty images I want to create, but it takes about four months to do one. And this is what the pallets are for – I’m doing a folk horror series. So, I’ve made half a miniature cottage, I’ve got a destroyed farm with broken pallets and farm machinery that I’ve made at scale.” There is something quite awe-inspiring in the layers of creation involved in achieving one such photograph. It’s 3D visualisation, design, woodwork, sculpture, art direction, lighting, photography and so much more. But without a certain magic, it’s just a model. And that’s the final ingredient that Robert brings – the story we want to see.

Follow Robert on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Patreon to see more of his work, and works in progress.

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