When I turn up at his north London studio, Nadav Kander is on the phone. He is explaining, patiently but persuasively, why his pictures shouldn’t be exhibited behind Perspex and although I can’t hear the person on the other end of the call, when he hangs up I sense he’s got his way. A dog trots amiably around us and Nadav is polite and personable as we sit down to talk about his stellar career, which has seen him photograph the likes of David Beckham, Tinie Tempah, Henry Kissinger, Nick Cave, Missy Elliott, Michael Caine, Tony Blair, Ricky Gervais and Barack Obama. Even across such a broad range of subjects, the style of Nadav’s portraiture is consistent – there tends to be an unsettling, brooding quality to his pictures, if not dark then certainly intense.
“I think there’s probably more truth about myself in my portraits than there is about the person,” he says. “When you are presented with a person you talk to them and react to their body language and those are the things that inform you as to the darkness, the lightness, the direction and all the tools you have to photograph them. That’s often very correct for the person and it’s often quite correct for you and it’s that triangle I find very interesting.
“The triangle being myself and the sitter and the viewer and the viewer is equally important because I’ve managed to cause them an emotion by the way that I have my sitter positioned or the way they’re looking. How much of that is me and how much of that is the sitter? Who knows, but that’s the beautiful kind of dance.”
Beautiful yes, but his own influences are tinged with something more complex. He’s drawn to the work of Francis Bacon because it’s “challenging” and “troubled.”
“I like to immerse myself in that kind of scenario. I don’t really want to go to Disneyland…well I do. It’s probably the same. That’s a bad example. But I don’t photograph on a beach where everyone is at ease.” In fact he thinks putting subjects at ease is overrated.
“Some people come in and they love the process but others are so cautious and stiff because they are fearful of something. I don’t want to change that if that’s who they are.”
The clue to the genesis of Nadav’s artistic approach might be found in his biography. His parents met in Israel, his father having fled Nazi Germany, but they moved to South Africa when he was very small – in fact the plane journey there is his first memory. But his family arrived in a country riven by racial and social tensions.
“I don’t think I was a particulalrly happy chap there. I think it was a very aggressive society. I remember often feeling unsafe, feeling I’d get beaten up, fights would break out. I liked to hang out with the toughest guys who were quite a lot older. I think being interested in peripheries, in edges comes out in my work because I don’t feel mainstream.
“It’s probably all tied in together. I didn’t fit that well there because I wasn’t a big macho dude. I tried to act it, I had a big motorbike (a Triumph 650) when I was 15 so it’s a real mish-mash and it’s all a bit confusing to me. But I do think when you make art if you are authentic to yourself and strong enough, you turn yourself inside out.
“That’s the kind of work that I like; work that really shows a person’s atmosphere, how comfortable they are with their surroundings, with their lot. That’s what I think good art is made of.”
Apart from motorbikes, the other passion he discovered in South Africa was taking pictures, and it was pursuing this creative path that would bring him to England aged 21. He went to the Photographers Gallery every day but his shyness made it difficult to make the necessary professional connections. By the time he landed his first job as a photographer’s assistant, he had already booked his ticket back to South Africa. Several decades later he identifies himself as a Londoner but admits: “I think I am more patriotic to Britain than Britain would be to me.”
Interestingly what first drew Nadav to photography was a technical rather than creative impulse. “I really do love beautifully-made mechanical things. I used to take watches apart when I was eight or nine and could never put them together again. My grandfather had an old movie camera and I just loved how it worked; there was no TV in South Africa at that time, and when I was bored I would go into his cupboard to play with this camera, to wind it up and reel it off. He also had a stills camera and just the way it would turn with each click – it was lovely to me.
“That’s why I bought a camera. I wanted to move forward with this instrument but it almost came from the mechanical side rather than wanting to take pictures. The first pictures I ever took – and I have them upstairs – I found a dead fly and put it on a newspaper and photographed it so close that the fly is most of the frame with just some out-of-focus newsprint. When you think how revealing and naked that is, in a way it doesn’t feel that different from what I am still doing.”
Behind where we are sitting, Nadav’s portraits of Barack Obama are pinned to the walls, and you can see what he means.
“When people are really powerful and they have a public face which is not really going to change, it often doesn’t. All that you can do is make your part of the process as interesting as possible. I will think of how the person looks – I am not that interested in what they do – and I will think of ways that will be the most interesting to show the cadaver of a person, their skin.
“If you always think about your work with your head you miss a lot. If you look at artwork with only your brain you miss a lot. There are tonnes of emotions that are nothing to do with how we think and it’s in that area I like to work.”
With Obama, the pressures came not from feeling some heavy hand of history on his shoulder, but in the practical concern that the President could be whisked away at any moment.
“I have to make sure I get something I really like quite quickly and then slow down the process if I can. That’s exactly what happened – something that could have been two minutes turned out to be about 30 and he even came to the screen and we talked about the pictures and revisited one. So it was a real sitting but it might not have been.
“With Desmond Tutu it was literally two minutes that I had with him and he screamed with laughter and then he was gone. I would be incredibly upset and really regret the opportunity had I not done what I had needed to.”
It’s not just the top man in the Obama administration whom Nadav has photographed. In January 2009, to coincide with the new President’s inauguration, he was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to produce 52 full-colour portraits of the men and women who were entering the White House with him. The resulting series, Obama’s People, is the largest single photo story the Times has ever run, and is a brilliantly honest documentation of the varied characters who were part of the Obama machine – from the strikingly young speechwriter to the effortlessly cool aide, and from besuited advisers to stellar names like Hilary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. They are shot against simple white backgrounds, stripped of all context except for the odd prop which Nadav asked his subjects to provide themselves.
“With that project I was very strict with myself to not change it even if I felt quite sorry for a person. I let them be in their box and be themselves. That was literally taking a person and putting them on a photocopier.”
Nadav sees a clear connection between his portraiture and landscape photography. “With portraits all that I can do is be in relationship with that person. While we are in that room we are in relationship – however that is – but it could be totally different a week later. It’s no different if I go to a country and do landscapes. I am in relationship with that country and it’s about how you feel in a place and how it informs you as to how to work.”
In 2010 he completed Yangtze – The Long River which would go on to win the prestigious Prix Pictet. He made five trips in total, over which time the Yangtze emerged as “a perfect metaphor” for contemporary China, buttressed by astonishing facts such as more people live along its banks than in the entire USA.
“I am not really trying to tell a story. My intention was much more to go to a landscape that was clearly aggravated, quite troubled by its rising water, by its incredible pace of change, people seemingly at odds with themselves and the country. It just seemed like the right kind of atmosphere to go to.
“Noticing that I was feeling such an outsider and stepping back – people became small because of that and that made me think of the sublime. I wondered if when John Martin was painting people small against the might of nature whether these things were presenting themselves to him in the same way they were presenting themselves to me.
“I don’t think these things are so cerebral – they are most authentic when they are not. The work is much more about human consciousness and human nature and human condition. The work is not about the stuff I have at the back of the book. It’s not that different to my Bodies work; it’s about how you feel on earth, how we relate to what we don’t like about ourselves.”
Bodies was an extraordinary show. Huge portraits of nudes, painted white with their faces hidden or turned away, cumulatively they created an oppressive effect hung on the dark charcoal walls of London’s Flowers Gallery (Nadav chose that exact shade of grey).
“I have been photographing nudes for quite a long time but they have always been too much about the nudity for me, which takes away from the feeling.
“I was very interested in people painting themselves white – there was something about that which connects me to death, a wonderful truth of life. And that’s why I am so interested in it, because we all have such difficulty with it and that’s where the shadow comes in. And the shadow is really melancholic and really beautiful and if I can bring the shadow up I feel that I am getting there.
“I want that tension, I want people to feel like they are looking at a Rothko when a Rothko moves you. It’s not about what you are looking at, it’s not about the information that’s on the canvas; it’s about what you are feeling of the bits you are seeing – the colour, the smudginess. All the things you have to make up yourself, all the things that move in the darkness, like that movie Don’t Look Now, all the things you can’t quite touch. The Yangtze work has that, Bodies has that; Bodies seems to be the most distilled.”
But if Nadav sees the Yangtze project and Bodies on the same creative continuum, he does place his commercial and advertising work at a remove.
“I do draw a line. With portraiture you can generally tell it’s my work but with advertising it sometimes gets so complicated it gets hidden. There are too many layers. I like to photograph paradoxes; something quite normal but quite beautifully photographed, or something quite beautiful which is normally photographed. There’s always a bit of mustard in the stew.”
That’s not to say he sees advertising work as just a way to pay the bills. “Commercial work can be so complicated but I get off on it – I like the technical challenges and I love the collaboration. I also find communication really powerful, really exciting. We talk about the Yangtze, it’s a pretty well-known series of work in the photographic and art genre, it’s been around a while and it’s done pretty well. But how many people do you think have actually set eyes on it? 70,000? Maybe 100,000? If you do a large campaign – not that I put my name to it or would want to – but you produce work that two or three billion people might see. That’s really quite a powerful thought.”
Recently Nadav was just about to go on stage to give a talk in The Netherlands, when fellow South African photographer Adam Broomberg revealed that his (Adam’s) family had bought the Kanders’ house in the town of Bramley. “It turned out we had the same bedroom,” Nadav says incredulously. “It was just so weird.” Clearly tickled by this coincidence, he is for a second not the thoughtful and articulate interviewee but something more like the wide-eyed child who first fell in love with the clicking noise his grandfather’s camera made.