In conversation with Nadav Kander
by Sean O'Toole
Nadav Kander is a big name in international photography. Despite this, his work remains largely unknown in South Africa, a country that was his home for 18 years. Born in Israel in 1961, Kander grew up in the Johannesburg suburbs of Houghton and Bramley, after his family relocated to South Africa when he was three years old.
After "just scraping" through school, Kander was conscripted into the SADF for two years. Having already developed a keen interest in photography at age 13, he was lucky enough to be placed in the air force darkrooms. Reflecting back on this period in his life, Kander admits "the air force was the first time ever in my life that I excelled in a learning environment". It also solidified his desire to embark on a career as a photographer. After completing his call-up, Kander left South Africa in 1982. He was 21.
Now based in London, Kander has built up an enviable reputation as a landscape and portrait photographer. He has exhibited his work in numerous museums and galleries, including Liverpool's Tate Gallery, the Royal Photographic Society, the National Portrait Gallery, the Michael Hoppen Photography Gallery, The Photographer's Gallery, the Saatchi Gallery and the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Los Angeles. His work also forms part of the public collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Despite an impressive resumé, Kander often finds that international audiences know him only for his commercial work. He has shot portraits of Tracey Emin for The Sunday Times, Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci for Dazed and Confused, and world-famous footballers for Rolling Stone. Among his numerous awards he has won the Stone Prize at Epica's 1999 European advertising awards.
The recent publication of his book Beauty's Nothing has done much to recoup Kander's reputation as a skilled art photographer. The book derives its title from a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "Beauty's nothing/but the first touch of terror/we're just able to endure/and we adore it so much/because it serenely distains destroy us." The book compiles a diverse collection of Kander's images, photographs that explore multiple genres (portrait, still life, landscape) and subjects (prostitutes, movie stars, cityscapes, desertscapes).
The following is an edited version of a conversation with Kander at his Islington studio in London.
Since leaving South Africa in 1982, how did your career unfold?
First off, I am self-taught. I never went to college. The training I received in the air force, all the short courses I had to go on, was the only bit of formal training I received in photography. After a brief stint in America, I ended up in London. I started out by assisting for a while, which is the same thing as being an apprentice really. I assisted a commercial photographer, which, when I look back on it, I recall with a lot of affection, particularly for the photographer.
Assisting in the early 1980s was great because commercial photographers of the period were really technically proficient. It was not a time of retouching; people really knew how to photograph. In essence it was really craft based, which is really out the window now. I found it to be a really good grounding because later in life you find that those techniques automatically become a part of you.
How do you view your twin careers, of being an art as well as commercial photographer? Has this ever constituted a problem to you personally?
I don't see my art career and my commercial career that differently. I don't approach one differently from the other. I tend only to get asked to do commercial work that parallels and mirrors my artwork. I don't hide that a part of me is a commercial photographer. I really enjoy receiving advertising briefs; I really enjoy communicating to millions of people in such a quick period. It is quite refreshing as well, especially when one compares it with the making of one's own images. It usually takes such a long time for an idea to manifest.
How would you describe your process?
I do not intellectually engage my projects; I don't think them out. I tend to photograph things intuitively. It is only later on into a project that things become clear, and open to fine-tuning. That is how the 'Night' series evolved. It was something I had developed over four years. As a process this differs from my commercial work where on day one you meet the client to discuss the product, 21 days later you photograph it, and then two and half months later millions of people see it. That aspect of commercial photography I find to be really fascinating and exhilarating.
Practically speaking, I would always tack on a week or two to a job to pursue these projects. I have never found it easy to do my own work on the flow because it always takes four or five days to relax and see in the language that you want to see. If I simply tackle my own work on one night I find that they are invariably a bit thin.
How or what prompted you to do your landscape studies?
These evolved as a result of my travels to America. On my different commercial jobs I somehow always seemed to find myself in similar areas. I found this really interesting because unlike in any other country I have been to, there is a real sprawl to American urban areas. These tend to extend into very beautiful and vast expanses of desert. My photography is essentially interested in documenting that crossover where it is really neither one nor the other.
What interests me is how photography allows one to see man's footprint or thumbprint on the landscape. This approach represents a recoil from what I used to do long ago, when I did beautiful landscapes that were essentially decorative pieces of work, decorative landscapes.
If I can pick up on that comment about man's footprint or thumbprint, what is your impression of Richard Misrach's work?
I love 'Desert Cantos'. I thought what he achieved was remarkable in terms of the subtext. It would be easy to look at them and mistake his work for being decorative. I bought one of his 'Crater' studies, and it has lasted incredibly long as an engaging image.
Your night studies, particularly the 'Horizon Lines' series, possess a remarkable beauty. I found that their absorption with a minimal content reminded me of Hiroshi Sugimoto, particularly his abstract seascapes. What triggered this 'Horizon Line' series?
There was no real trigger, but rather they are an extension of my 'Night' series landscapes. When I started photographing night I was looking for another way of making slightly or subtly uncomfortable pictures. Basically the pictures make you ask questions. It is not meant to be uncomfortable in the sense that I am showing a sheep's guts. They tend towards being slightly uneasy. This really is what I love to do.
On a practical level, I initially started doing all of this in my day landscapes, and the 'Night' series developed as an extension of this. It was just another way of doing this. The thing is though that when I started doing the 'Night' series I felt really uncomfortable. Just being in car parks on Mexican borders or somewhere in Bloomington, I felt really uncomfortable being there, the cars passing, the kids in cars.
The first pictures I took in this series were quite descriptive, a light by a house, a car in a car park. There was always light in the picture. Slowly however they became more abstract. By abstracting them it allowed a stillness to manifest itself. This stillness, that my pictures do not necessarily reflect a specific period of time, encapsulates what I love to do in my work. I think this series is really about collapsing a long piece of time onto a sheet of film.
Looking back now at the 'Night' series, how have your insights changed?
Things that I have discovered since when looking at the series is the manufactured quality of the subject matter, the manufactured farming fields. It is again a repetition of my interest in man's thumbprint. Another insight that came to me was that it was not moonlight that was lighting the pictures, but electric light. Without man around the photograph would have just been a blank canvass. That is my own slight intellectualisation of the process, but more than that I can't say. I just think they are very beautiful.
This establishes a rather interesting tension. Earlier on you spoke of your intention to communicate a sense of unease, yet at the same time you talk of beauty. Can you elaborate?
Working at night can be very uncomfortable, and in a sense this contradiction is reflected visually in my night pictures. If I go with goggles on in the ocean, I always keep my back to the deep-end because if I look underwater to the deep-end of the ocean, I flip out. I hate it. It is the same thing with my 'Night' series, that tailing off into blackness.
Still on the 'Night' series, but on a different point. I liked the gradual gradation of colour in your 'Horizon Line' pictures. How would you describe these textural qualities in your work?
I like it in the same sense that I like Rothko's work.
Is Rothko then an influence?
No. The Rothko connection was not something that I realised until afterwards, when people pointed out the similarities.
Generally speaking, would you say that there is a strong relationship between your portraiture and landscape?
Not in terms of technique. And one also has to exclude commercial celebrities, because then things are a bit different. But other than this I think there are parallels. I think simply speaking I deal with subjects on the fringes. I often photograph people who look like they don't fit, and this is how I would describe my landscapes too. They do not quite fit and are uncomfortable. I try communicate this to the viewer, try to make the viewer feel exactly the same way. If you look at a picture that answers all your questions, that to me would be exceedingly boring. I want people to view the work and wonder what is happening out of frame, or what happened next, or how long the car has been there, or why am I photographing that particular subject. Questions that aren't necessarily answered - well, not by me.
The same process applies to my portraits. One of the ways I try to achieve this is by getting the people to think of nothing, by trying to get them to drop all their muscles, thoughts. It is almost photographing the shell rather than the soul. Claiming to capture the soul does not interest me, in the same way as Cartier-Bresson doesn't really interest me. I am not after the "moment"; I am far more after doing a picture that asks questions. Subconsciously I am also more interested in pictures that the author isn't entirely responsible for, that point in front of you that you are not entirely author of. Misrach is a good example here. His work is not about moments, but rather about a choice, about where the photographer chooses to set up his camera.
Does your recent work contain any South African content?
With regards your book, Beauty's Nothing, what would you say is your relationship between word and image?
It is really interesting when people write well about your art because it offers an insight into yourself. The process of putting together my book really changed me. Because my work is intuitive and I do not engage it intellectually, it is the people around me who communicate new aspects about it.