“Revealed yet concealed. Shameless yet shameful. Ease with unease. Beauty and destruction. These paradoxes are displayed in all my work; an inquiry into what it feels like to be human.” – Nadav Kander
Widely regarded as one of the finest photographers of our time, Nadav Kander is renowned for his uncompromising and evocative images which cut to the heart of the human condition.
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was two, his parents moved the family to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he would remain for the rest of his childhood.
Kander’s introduction to the possibilities of photography came during his formative years through his father, an airline pilot who had purchased an Iconoflex during one of his work trips to New York and would use it to capture hundreds of photos of the family’s road trips.
However, it was his interest in the mechanics of the camera, rather than a yearning to capture images, that compelled Kander, at the age of thirteen, to purchase his first camera. Nonetheless, his new possession galvanized his interest and soon he began exploring the medium, finding particular interest in the work of the modernist greats, namely, Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Eugène Atget, and Edward Weston.
Even in his juvenility, he recognized how each was, through their respective work, exploring their own existence, and thus, regardless of subject matter, each of their images displayed a part of their respective selves. This notion resonated with Kander, setting the foundation for his approach, which remains intrinsic to his practice to this day.
Concurrently, he stumbled upon an image in a local newspaper that would also leave a lasting impression. It portrayed a group of black men digging a trench, whilst above them, cropped at the knees, stood a pair of white legs. For Kander, it embodied the injustice of the apartheid state in which he lived, and, the sense of unease he felt then, would inform his work thereafter.
He left school in his late teens, and, as was mandated for all white male citizens in South Africa, was drafted into national service. He chose the airforce and was fortunate enough to be employed in a darkroom, printing aerial photographs. It was here that his ambition to become a photographer was truly established.
Following his departure two years later, Kander joined the studio of renowned fine-art and documentary photographer, Harry De Gitzer. However, he would remain there for just a few months, Europe was calling and had been since a family trip around the continent in his mid-teens, and so in 1981, then aged 21, he left for London.
Although he returned to South Africa in 1985, his sojourn was brief. Within a year he was back in London and it was here (where he still lives today) where his photography career began in earnest.
Renowned for his portraiture, he has, throughout his illustrious career photographed some of the most prominent figures from across art, sport and politics, most famously Barack Obama, who he captured, after his inauguration, for the cover of the New York Times Magazine.
Part of a series entitled Obama’s People, it encompassed, along with the President, fifty-two portraits of his most trusted staff and members of the administration, most notably, then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Published in early 2009, it was the first time the magazine had included such an extensive body-of-work from a single photographer,
As befits the finest portraiture, Kander’s are strikingly honest; simple, yet pervaded with an intensity that grips the viewer from the outset. His eye for form and light is reminiscent of Weston’s still-life, whilst his intuitive approach recalls that of Jane Bown, (one of the greatest purveyors of the format) and is a prerequisite, due to the strict time constraints which accompany the photographing of such eminent clients.
Kander’s landscapes, though different in subject matter, share the same sensibilities that define his oeuvre. He forms transitory relationships with the places he visits in much the same way as he does with his human subjects, exemplified in his 2009 series, Yangtze: The Long River.
The result of a series of trips made to China between 2006-08, he uses the vast waterway, both as a geographical starting point and as a metaphor for the rapidly changing nation, and captures, through a layer of polluted air, the gargantuan and often unfinished structures which line its banks.
Despite the seemingly vernacular theme, it is not so much a documentary, but rather a representation of his own emotional response to his journeys. The restless atmosphere emblemizes his feeling that China is destroying its heritage, whilst also being indicative of the solidarity he felt with the migrant workers whose rootlessness mirror his own. The series which was released as a monograph the following year would go on to win the prestigious Prix Pictet.
In 2013, Bodies, a series of nude studies, would simultaneously further exemplify his remarkable virtuosity, and his ability to create a diversity of images that retain his unique anima.
A powerful examination of the human condition, his subjects, their contorted bodies coated in a white powder that contrast dramatically with the obsidian backdrops, bring to mind the statuary of the great renaissance sculptors, and though undoubtedly beautiful, evoke the same sense of disquiet as much of his oeuvre.
Throughout his remarkable career, he has exhibited extensively across the world, and in addition to the Prix Pictet, his numerous awards include the 1st prize (Staged Portraits, Single) at the 2013 World Press Photo Awards, for his striking portrait of British actor Daniel Kaluuya and, Outstanding Contribution to Photography, at the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards.
Nadav Kander’s works are now held in the permanent collections of, amongst others, The National Portrait Gallery, in London; Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography and, The Art Gallery of New South Wales.
All Images © Nadav Kander.
Nadav Kander was the judge of our Portrait Photography Award in May 2021. View the results here.