Photos by Nadav Kander
Interview by Alexander Strecker
Nadav Kander is a sought-after and immensely productive portrait-maker, shooting covers of some of the world’s most important individuals (Obama, Blair, Kissinger) for some of the most respected publications.
But alongside this public-facing oeuvre, he has spent decades pursuing personal work in the landscape tradition. Although the working methods in each genre are completely different, to Kander, there is little difference in the end result. In each case, he says, “I’m looking to be moved by the image, and I hope for the viewer to recognize something of themselves in the image too.”
Given Kander’s success as both a commercial and artistic photographer, he has a lot to teach us in terms of successfully pursuing a creative path through life. Indeed, for this year’s edition of the ING Unseen Talent Award, Kander was asked to be a mentor for a group of five hand-picked emerging artists. Their assigned theme was “Common Ground.” To knit them together, Kander brought all five artists to his London studio, to get everyone “on common ground,” and establish an immediate sense of intimacy amongst one another. He then followed up with them via LensCulture’s Sessions platform for long-distance mentoring.
In advance of the exhibition premiering the five talents’ latest work, showing at this year’s Unseen, LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker spoke with Kander about his roots, the importance of mentoring and the challenge of staying true to oneself in this age of visual glut.
Nadav Kander first became interested in photography as a boy growing up in South Africa. At the time, “photography was so much more a technical endeavor. You had to be on top of the craft element in order to make good work. I fell in love with these technical aspects before any notions of expression and art. It was the cameras, the beauty of the mechanics and how precise you had to be. For the first 25 years, I printed every single picture I ever took. This remains the bedrock of how I print on a computer.”
At 21, Kander moved to London to pursue his dream. Upon arriving, he found work with a professional photographer, someone who “definitely helped, but not as a mentor.” Rather, Kander focused on the technical aspects of the medium, continuing to hone his craft. Within just three years, Kander felt he had learned the ropes and was confident enough to strike out on his own. He opened an independent studio at the age of 24.
And yet Kander makes no secret of the fact that until 30 (and beyond), he was still questioning himself—seeking his own voice and vision of the world. His method? “I photographed an enormous amount. I would go out on the weekends and photograph landscapes again and again. That’s the only way to get good at it. I still have filing cabinets filled with negatives.”
Although renowned today, especially for his portraits (as well as his ever-growing body of landscape work), he says, “There were no people in my pictures until I was about 30. And even when I began making portraits, at first I was simply using my subjects as cadavers for expression. It wasn’t about the person but rather enlivening the viewer to recognize the human condition.”
Although Kander’s work and style seem so clear and well-defined today, his apparent certainty only came with time. “It was only in retrospect that I realized the landscapes which were attractive to me were those affected by man. I was photographing people and separately, the environments where the human palm print was evident. Of course, all of this I only know now. At the time, I didn’t see the link at all.”
A Visual Education
Despite his modesty, Kander’s capacity for self-direction is notable. While he admits that the individual steps were not always obvious along the way, but he has long known where he wanted to end up. Take, for example, his description of his own visual education. Kander never received a university degree and attended no formal, aesthetic schooling. Rather, his autonomous pedagogy occurred at the beloved (and now long-gone) Zwemmer’s, a bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. “Whenever I had some extra money, I would go down there and spend 3-4 hours with Claire de Rouen, the severe French lady behind the till. I would look through books, and when something resonated, I would grab it. Eventually, I would walk out with five books. The work in these volumes was formative for me. I still have a bookshelf with my inspirations from that era, and I continue to reference them today.”
But unlike some autodidacts, Kander is an ardent believer in the power of influence and learning from the past. As he puts it, “All the work I’ve ever seen that has sunk deep into me sits on my shoulders like a rolodex. I see something through my camera, or think about something, or start to print, and these images pop into my head: Edward Weston. Francis Bacon. Joel Sternfeld. Diane Arbus. Cindy Sherman. Hiroshi Sugimoto. Jeff Wall. Thomas Demand. John Deakin. Jan Saudek. Bill Brandt. Bill Henson.
“When this happens, I have to reckon with these figures and contend with their work. Do I move towards or away from a particular image, a certain influence? When I’m mentoring someone, I might look at their work and be reminded of someone else’s, say, Thomas Struth. Suddenly, I feel a little electricity. I tell them to look at Struth’s work, to read an essay on him. Sometimes these echoes prove productive. If not, I tell them to simply move away.”
Staying True to Yourself
Given his conception of “contending” with external influences, Kander recognizes that outside forces must be dealt with thoughtfully. First, there is the trouble of negotiating with truly dominant figures. To illustrate his point, Kander looked towards writing. “Imagine you want to become a good writer. If you read stylists like Kerouac, Hemingway, and Salinger, your own writing starts to get pulled apart. The same is true for the visual arts. I’m mindful for that not to happen to my own work.”
But Kander also thinks there is a more pernicious and increasingly unavoidable problem: the influence we feel from the images that are surrounding us every day, the constant visual bombardment we are receiving on a minute-to-minute basis. “People don’t look deeply enough anymore because there’s too much to look at. Everyone is flipping, flipping, flipping. I don’t think we can absorb work of this level at such fantastic speeds. We see pictures on our phones, on Instagram, and in all the vehicles that pop into our hands and brain daily, constantly.
“I don’t feel good when I see a whole bunch of work. I feel like I’m swimming in a dirty ocean. I need to be more mindful of what I’m doing and what is authentic to me. I do what I can to slow down. I carefully choose which galleries to visit. I remind myself that I don’t have to see everything. I try to stay true to myself.”
This adherence to mindfulness is abundantly evident in a Kander landscape picture: the immense scale, muted colors, and artisanal printing all derive from this cardinal quality. From the moment the frame is made to the (much later) moment when a viewer is confronted with Kander’s vision, it is clear that speed should be set aside. As he describes it, “The process does not only occur in the camera. It happens before and it happens after. The picture-taking itself doesn’t have to be slow, it’s about the time around it.
“When I give myself time, I create the space to ask myself questions: am I being too clever? Am I being too influenced by those around me—from market forces to gallery trends to the artists I’ve mentioned? I’m very conscious if something is taking me away. When I get taken away, something is lost. It’s as if I don’t like myself, as if I don’t feel good about myself because I’ve allowed myself to be weakened by external forces. It means I haven’t found that charge in the work.”
Getting Out of Your Head
“To combat this compromised feeling, I come into the studio at four in the morning. There, I can do all the things that keep me centered. I look at the work, I edit it, I think. These are the times that I can really center myself and be quiet. If I have three solid hours to focus, that’s usually enough to get back on track.”
Yet there is another part of Kander’s life that does not involve sitting alone in his studio at 4 AM: at these times, he is at the eye of a hurricane—a hurricane known as a magazine photo shoot. Surprisingly, though, these two halves are not in tension for Kander; they work in harmony: “Making my own work, when it is really my own, is such an insular and lonely time. In contrast, I love working with people, collaborating with assistants, engaging with my subject, working under pressure. The two balance beautifully.
“I believe there’s no difference in the end result. In every case, I’m looking for my viewer to be really excited by the image I have made. For the person and the picture to meet. Whether I’m looking at a Rothko or a Weston, the excitement in each case might be different, but what’s happening to me as a human being is the same. This variety shouldn’t seem strange. If we only liked one kind of stimulus, we would each only look at one kind of art. In reality, we go to the Tate one day and the Louvre another.”
For Kander, this diversity of expression should be met on the other side by the viewer. In other words, art should come from within but then generate a response in somebody else. This should happen through the work itself, but it can also occur in conversation—whether in a lecture, an interview or, in the case of the ING Unseen Talent Award, via a mentoring process. As Kander says, “It’s wonderful to verbalize things. Making your own art is such an introspective and lonely place, so when you actually speak about it and see another person’s response, that’s when it becomes an activity of human enrichment. This is not particular to photography—helping others is always beautiful.”
Finding Your Own Language
When talking to Kander, it’s refreshing to hear how his focus and clarity also come with an acknowledgement of the challenges of remaining undistracted in 2017: “It’s bloody not easy. I’m on Instagram, I really like it. I have three kids that keep me really busy. I’m in the real world and I’m pulled all over the place.” But whether it’s wrestling with an invisible interlocutor such as Francis Bacon, sitting down for a chat with a young photographer, or simply being mindful of how many pictures he looks at in a day, Kander is aware of the balance we all must strike between internal and external forces.
But if there is one pursuit that is essential for anyone with creative ambitions, it is the challenge of finding and developing one’s own language to describe the world. Especially amidst our contemporary cacophony, we must each develop our own vision and voice, otherwise we are not offering anything new or distinctive. Though Kander offered this advice in the context of mentoring, it surely applies to everyone in pursuit of a creative passion: “I often explain to people that they have to be their own findings, they need to find their own avenue, form their own language.
“To do so in photography, you must look at pictures, work out what you like and what you don’t, and then figure out why you like something. Just by exercising your humanness (since this happens in more places than just the brain), you build a muscle. Eventually, you become quite clear on your own taste. That clarity is what allows a photographer to make decisions in the moment: what to take, why you’re taking it, how to print it and so on. The more muscular that muscle becomes, the better you become at what you do.”
The Challenges for “Emerging Talents”
To maintain the energy for one’s personal journey towards authentic self-expression, there are two key ingredients that are crucial (especially if one is seeking external validation): “a good attitude and being driven.” These, unfortunately, cannot be taught. As Kander recalled his early, hungry days—the years between 18-30 when he was shooting incessantly—he said, “I was driven beyond belief. I was driven to be accepted, to be respected. Without that drive, how are you ever going to do that? Rather, you’re going to go to a party and carry on with your life. In the end, I don’t think one gets ‘discovered’—rather, it happens for those individuals who fight to have their work seen.”
According to Kander, the necessity of drive has remain unchanged since he started. But there are new challenges that have arisen in the changing landscape of media and art. On this topic, Kander says, “Today, it’s really hard to be seen among the unbelievable amount of popular imagery that is being shown these days. There are so many more opportunities than there once were, but it’s never been harder to be seen with coherence and impact.
“When I was beginning, the challenges were different. But if you succeeded in being shown, it wasn’t with the speed that images are being seen today. If you landed a magazine spread or were profiled in a newspaper, that was a much slower vehicle than appearing on someone’s phone. That’s why I always tell young artists: print out your work. Don’t just look on a screen all the time. Make your images tactile, move them around. Your work will become much more human as a result.”
In the end, this humanness is what ties everything together. Much as Kander links his own disparate oeuvre with the shared thread of humanity, so he concluded our conversation with some unavoidable truths that every prospective artist must confront: “You need to look a lot. You need to shoot a lot. But like I said, it’s not all brain, not all thinking. All this cerebral stuff about what the work will be, all the stuff you can write before you go and shoot anything—all of that doesn’t matter if the work itself doesn’t move you. If it doesn’t resonate with the meat, then you’ve missed the point.”