From underachieving at school in South Africa, to one of the best known photographers in the world, Nadav Kander got his first camera at 13, had his own studio by 24. Today, at 54, he reflects on how to stand out in photography’s constantly evolving landscape.
British Journal of Photography caught up with Nadav Kander ahead of his appearance at The Photography Show 2017 in Birmingham. Conversation quickly turned to his recent much debated image of Donald Trump. Normally when Nadav Kander turns up to shoot a portrait, the only thing he’s thought through beforehand is the lighting. But Donald Trump was different.
“I was really divided about how I should do it – how to do this TIME cover justice without putting my political views out there,” he says of his commission to photograph the US president for TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year cover.
“If you photograph properly, you’re talking about a coming together of two histories. A person of 70, who’s had a life of 70 years, and a person of 54, who’s had a life of 54 years. As soon as politics comes in, you change things. It’s difficult to exclude that but you need to if you’re making a mature portrait that’s going to have any lasting effect.”
What inspires him about photography has evolved with the technology. “The cameras are far less interesting, they’re all plastic and electronic. The mechanical element and my mechanical intelligence has gone – and that’s a pity – but working in a darkroom, as I still do sometimes, working on a screen, in Photoshop, is hugely enjoyable. I love image-making.”
“But I’ve never been a photographer who has left much to chance. I don’t hunt my portraits, I set them up,” he adds. “There’s a difference between writing and poetry. Whereas I could write with the darkroom, I can make poetry with digital.”
Kander’s first professional job as a photographer was a three-month stint assisting Harry De Zitter in South Africa. At 21, he moved to London – the city he’s called home for the past 35 years – and spent a further four years assisting before setting up his own studio and getting a commercial agent. Back then there weren’t the vast array of university courses in photography that there are today, though an academic route would not have appealed anyway.
“What suited me was shooting hundreds of thousands of rolls of film,” says Kander. “That made me versatile, it gave me the range that I have.”
His advice to photographers starting out now: “Look at architecture, sculpture… not necessarily photography. Keep looking and keep shooting. It’s like a language. I’m getting better and better at speaking Nadav Kander.”
Today that artistic voice finds expression through his portraiture and his personal projects rather than commercial work, which, unlike in the early days, he now sees as quite separate. “Before Photoshop you might print a picture differently in the darkroom, but you couldn’t do that much to it afterwards so you invested a lot of pride in it.
“It now gets so changed that the level of authorship you have lessens with every concern or insecurity that a paying client might have. If you pick and choose carefully, you can swerve that minefield and work where you know people really are after what you can do – but it’s very different to when I started.”
Haunting landscapes, evocative nudes, compelling portraits of controversial presidents – the unifying thread that runs through Kander’s richly-varied portfolio is the power to suggest something beyond what is apparent. “It’s all about the unknown – that’s what I look for in pictures of the sea or in landscapes. I’m looking for what it feels like to close one’s eyes and not know.”