When TIME Magazine controversially chose Donald Trump to be its “Person of the Year” at the end of 2016, the photographer they asked to shoot his portrait managed to create what immediately became a viral, much-parodied web meme. The uncharacteristically dignified figure of a widely ridiculed President-elect gazing over his shoulder from a vintage armchair begat countless interpretations, an image seemingly pleased with its own ambiguity.
That the image should prove a kind of Rorschach of political sentiment no doubt amused its creator, London-based Nadav Kander. A long-time master of portraiture, as well as landscape, Kander has aimed his virtuosic camera at both the anonymous and the famous — including politicians (the Clintons, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi), actors (Michael Caine, Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender), film directors (Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Tim Burton), musicians (Paul McCartney, Michael Stipe, Brian Eno), and artists (Julian Schnabel, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle). This list of examples doesn’t come close to revealing Kander’s range of subjects, nor how ubiquitous his world-class work is.
It’s no mystery why he is regularly hired by The New York Times Magazine and other venerable publications to shoot many of their covers and series. Like any top portrait photographer, Kander strives to reveal something in his subjects that has not been seen before, and to humanize rather than flatter or ingratiate. Trusting his instincts, honed from decades of evolving his own photographic language, he rarely prepares for shoots conceptually beyond simply looking at Googled images of his sitters to begin thinking about lighting, angles and such. His pictures revel in the interiority of his subjects’ lives, rather than their commercial aura. They’re not brands, his images declare—they’re people like us.
To Kander, a successful portrait is one in which we get a glimpse of the human condition, and of the drama of lives that have faced adversity, not just adulation and glamour. At each encounter, he feels his way toward that which has molded them, as etched in their face, rather than any preconception or concern about the outlines of their fame. And, as with the Trump portrait, as many questions are asked as answered.
It doesn’t take long to perceive Kander’s ongoing dialogue with art history in his tireless expansion of the portrait toolbox. Christian Marclay seems to have stepped into a painting by Magritte. Brian Molko is not far from a Francis Bacon. A male nude becomes Holbein’s Christ, and Florence Welch a pious Renaissance figure. In “Erin After Caravaggio” and “Table After Pollock,” his intention is clearly stated. But when pondering Kanye West with a white arm, Mike Tyson with a white dove, Ridley Scott with a pencil and crumpled piece of paper, or Ricky Gervais as an “atheist” martyr, the game is more oblique. In a series on Obama’s People (2009) for The New York Times, he captured 52 distinct characters, in a typological tour de force that Bernd and Hiller Becher could have admired. “If you show the same thing essentially again and again, you very clearly see the differences between them… Obama’s People came from exactly that thinking. By showing people lit in the same way multiple times you start to see with clarity.”
Israeli-born Kander alternates his for-hire studio work with self-initiated projects that take him to far corners of the globe. His most ambitious and highly regarded series, begun in 2007, was of China’s “mother river,” the Yangtze. Shot in five separate trips, the journey revealed, in metaphorical layers, that vast and rapidly transforming country, which he saw as primarily about constant and often disruptive change. But whatever he shoots, Kander is as much attuned to what it may say about his own inner landscape as he is to the subject before him. “I try not to be influenced by what I already know,” he says, “but rather respond to what I found and felt… I seek out the iconography that allows me to frame views that make the images unique to me.” His projects are not meant to document, but to distill memory and history from landscape and visage.
This is especially true for Kander’s current focus on the Thames Estuary, bringing him home from his travels to the river that made London a vibrant capital. Regarding these minimalist riverscapes, distinctively different from his Yangtze shots, Kander speaks of wanting to get beyond the constraints of the straightforward photographic image to achieve the kind of pregnant abstraction that painters are allowed — in order to insert himself, the artist rather than the witness, into the image. “The work I’m now doing on the Thames Estuary is about the layers of time before us. And what’s so beautiful about the river is that it holds no memory, it’s moved on. There’s something very beautiful about that; it feels like subconscious or thought, or both.”
Kander is a deeply contemplative man who is happiest exploring that which is not easily known or mysteries that require some unraveling. His infatuation with rivers is not about venerating an idyllic nature, he says, so much as about returning to the womb. “There’s a mystery for me about water, especially when you can’t see through the surface. There’s a darkness, a depth beyond, something unfathomable.”
This penchant for seeking more elusive realities can be seen, for example, in Dream Girls (1998). He travelled to Cuba and decided to avoid the usual pastiche of crumbling façades, vintage cars and tattered Che posters. He shot frank portraits of sex workers living in the margins of a society that still embraced Catholicism. In Bodies (2010-2012), he conjured a unique twist on portraying nudes, devising a material method for rendering living flesh as marble. In Holocaust Survivors (2011), his dramatic black-and-white portraits are compelling reliefs of faces that have seen and endured far too much. In Dust (2011), intrigued by secret, derelict structures in desolate parts of Kazakhstan, he risked arrest taking pictures of these forgotten enclaves shielded from the rest of the world.
Although Kander had for a long time been a superb darkroom technician (“My initial love was the mechanics of it”), he fully embraced his eventual transition to digital. “Coming to terms with working digitally is far more alive, for me, because so much more of me can be in the print. I can revisit it, I can quite accurately change the mood of things, I can print it so much more delicately than I could in the darkroom… I want to leave nostalgia behind, I want to make work to the best of my ability in a modern context.” Kander brought to the new medium an intuitive, almost automatic calibration of “how to make a picture have more mood and how to make a picture excite more. And when to stop or when I’d gone too far, or when I’d answered something that I shouldn’t have answered. When the picture was losing that delicacy of… the relation of undercurrent and beauty. Knowing when that wasn’t in balance, or something was too beautiful.” He only feels he’s being authentic when he works from the gut, on auto-pilot. “If I get too smart I feel I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes.”
Kander finds poetry in the banal and the imperfect as much as in the extraordinary or grandly scaled. In Daily Presentations (2015), he created a series of Everyman and Everywoman portraits, bringing to mind the hyperrealist sculptures of Duane Hanson — an exaltation of the plain and even frumpy citizens who comprise most of the real world’s population. He sees a kinship between photography and literature, as connected in their tendency toward the abstract by way of creating atmosphere. “I love the word atmosphere. It’s amazing in painting and photography because you can’t see atmosphere. But we all know what it means: the thing that charges the banal with beauty.” In subjects large and small, Kander will always detect a deeper truth, one that may attach meaning and even solace to the inevitability of death. “In the same way that women might find solace in knowing that millions of women have given birth before, we show our past and others’ lives to comfort us about this very small, short life we have within the history of man.”
Lead image: President-elect Donald Trump I, 2016 © Nadav Kander, courtesy TIME Inc.
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