Nadav Kander with David Campany

Nadav Kander: the Meeting, Steidl, 2019

Dear David, We always seem to have thought-provoking and meandering conversations when we meet. I was wondering if you would agree to some kind of exchange in the hope that it might become a foreword to a book of pictures of people that I’m working on.

Dear Nadav, I’m always happy to meander. You seem to be traveling a lot. I am too. Let’s exchange thoughts by email. It will give us time to think. From what I know, you have photographed for a long time now, and all over the world, but there is a sense of purpose in your work that is very consistent, no matter what genre or subject matter. There’s something enigmatic too.  Maybe it is that mysterious gap between seeing and knowing. Showing, but sensing what cannot be shown.  I am not sure I can put my finger on it yet, but perhaps we can try.

Nadav: I have walked down one road since I started photographing when I was 13. I feel I haven’t deviated at all. I still need my work to strike the same chords in me that I have always longed for and striven for. My photographs (however varied a viewer might find them) come from the same inner place. I seem to revisit a slowed-down reality, which is very beautiful and important to me. Slow, quiet and slightly uneasy, alluding to more going on beneath what you see at first.

David: It was there at the age of 13. Something must have left a deep impression.

Nadav: I do remember a poster I had chosen for my bedroom when I was 12. I later found out that it was a reproduction of a painting by Dominique Appia. It showed an urban room with a fireplace. But what I was so drawn to was that it was an otherworldly room. Half normal and everyday, and half dreamlike. The room also felt like a landscape. Part of the floor was made up of waves from the sea, which was both inside and out. I remember it as if it were yesterday – a girl sitting reading on the floorboards with only half her body apparent, as if Appia had forgotten to paint all of her. I hadn’t noticed this detail at first. I guess subtlety allows you to be immersed in the work for longer. It adds layers and invites a relationship between the viewer and the picture.

Later on in my teens I was excited to discover the Dada movement. I saw those artists as free and uncontrollably expressive. Their works were surreal but not slick. They had a freedom from perfection, which I felt allowed the viewer to feel the person behind the paintbrush, camera or tools for sculpture.  I loved how uncanny and uneasy this art made me feel, almost as if I was amongst spirits while looking at it.

David: That is very vivid.  How does an artist deal with strong influences?

Nadav: I’m incredibly thankful for my influences but they are just reference points, or a springboard to jump off from. I realise the temptation nowadays is to borrow heavily from other picture makers because there is so much great work around, but those Dada artists were inventing and letting mistakes influence their next decisions. That’s something I aspire to, and I sometimes get there. It’s like hitting the sweet spot on the tennis racket, powerful and full of energy.

David: So it’s a spirit of creative making that is the influence. I guess that means you accept the danger of not succeeding. The risk of failure.

Nadav: Yes, that spirit joins my first picture to my recent work.  The subconscious need to express what feels meaningful and profound never goes away. I just try many ways to revisit it, to come at it from different directions.

David: The portraits you have made seem to have quite a special place in your work. As if a face, or a person, is a way to get to the tension between surface and depth. In a way, I feel the human face is already an image before it is photographed.  It is already a kind of presentation, or representation of the self, although a very fragile and elusive one.

Nadav: Yes, my photographs of people are an essential part of my practice.

They follow on from my photographing landscape. When first dealing with landscape I realised that it was not the natural environment I was after but the man altered landscape. I focused on a darker nature, our destructive ambivalence to our surroundings, but I shrouded these scenes in beauty using compositions that, purely from their form, colour and weight, would have an effect on me apart from the information shown.

David: Portraiture is often thought of as a two-way exchange, between photographer and sitter, but you have talked often of the viewer being crucial to meaning. That said, there’s a real intimacy to your portraits, as if these people have been given the freedom to forget their audience momentarily. We viewers can look, without feeling we are being performed to. Is this how it is?

Nadav: I have had to think a long time about your question. Much of what I do is intuitive so finding the words is difficult. When I am in front of a person (or a landscape for that matter), there is nothing in my head that matters. I am just looking with so much concentration that sometimes it feels as if I might explode. I do want to be stirred so badly! All I want is for something to show itself, something that if I release the shutter will become an image that will stir me and unsettle me. To get close to this I must direct people very softly, subtly, and create the appropriate light so that they experience something of themselves. Any frivolous act for the viewer will never work; it would appear transparent. It has to be just for them and me. Only once this is successful does the viewer enter and make up the triangle. Artist, subject and viewer. Each one a part of the whole.

David: A portrait photograph is a fragment from an ongoing life. We cannot really know the life and yet it is difficult for a viewer to avoid imagining it.

Nadav: I don’t photograph to tell stories. I photograph to make stories possible. In other words the viewer, if they hold their gaze long enough, becomes the author of the work’s meaning, with all that has formed them and made up their life up to that point. The viewer recognises something they see printed on this millimetre thick paper and responds, not intellectually but with feeling, because they see according to their story. This relationship is fundamental to me, but it is often missed or misunderstood because photography is still considered by many people to be a record of an event. It is that, but it is not only that. How could it be?

Perhaps if I replace the word ‘photographer’ with ‘poet’ the point becomes clear. We accept that when it comes to poetry each finds their own meaning and their perspective is unique. No more or less valid than yours or mine. The same, in my view, can be true of photography. I am hoping a viewer will enjoy these portraits sufficiently to stay with them and create their own meaning.

 David: Is it possible for you to make sense of how a person presents their self to you?

Nadav: Do I make sense of this, or just bear witness to it? I’m not sure. We all carry wherever we go a metaphorical suitcase packed with white, grey, and darker clothing. When we meet someone we choose what items to show. Maybe it’s a clean white shirt; maybe something darker. This unpacking and presentation is symbolic of a meeting. It’s like this when I work with a sitter for a portrait. Our stories collide and change depending on the day, the weather, our emotional state. No two meetings are the same, and no two outcomes the same.

David: You have photographed people who are unknown to the audience and also a lot of celebrities. But the longer I stay with your portraits the less knowable everybody seems, the less sure I feel, but the more compelled I am to keep looking. Yes, there’s the little thrill of recognition but this soon gives way to a deeper sense that most people are essentially strangers to themselves, and that ‘celebrity’ is little more than a mask, a surface that misleads the one who wears it as much as the one looking at it.

Nadav: I find great possibilities when photographing people who are well known. Of course initially I have the attention of my audience because there is a great reverie inherent in gazing upon celebrities. To see them display or evoke the emotion that we all feel can heightens the effect for the viewer. The emotion felt is amplified, almost as if a colour appears brighter. If this causes us to discover deeper meaning, then the work is successful. I think most of us are affected by and recognise vulnerability, love, terror, melancholy, loneliness and envy, among so many other human qualities.

David: Subject, artist, viewer. These are all different mental spaces, in a way. The artist encounters a subject. The artist makes an image. The image is placed somewhere. On a wall, in a magazine, in a book. The viewer sees it before them, but really it is in their head by that point, meeting their past and present, and heading into a future that neither the subject nor the artist can know.

Nadav: Definitely. Recently I saw a Dorothea Tanning exhibition and learned that she too was very influenced by Dadaism. (More than influenced; she married Max Ernst!). It was wonderful to encounter her Self Portrait 1944, which I had never seen before. I was awestruck, realising that at some level we were very connected in our needs to express something of another world or maybe the subconscious. What brought this on was seeing the similarities with two of my pictures, ‘She Once Held An Oar’ from my series Dust and ‘Diver’ from God’s Country.  All three pictures look at a human figure, alone in the landscape. They show a beautiful world but beneath there is loneliness, or maybe it is excitement at the possibility of voyage. Me, the viewer, is voyeuristically behind a figure that is looking in front of them, outward to the world, but into the picture. The parallel worlds that pictures like this can occupy are clear to me.

David: Yes, I think this is an essential character of images, but it is often overlooked.

Nadav: From beneath the surface beauty comes an existential call that touches questions of destiny and the unknown. The works of Hans Bellmer, Man Ray, Raoul Hausmann, Dali and Hans (Jean) Arp have also had a big influence on me. Although my work is not surreal, the feeling I get from the work of these artists is something I always search for. For example, Jean Arp’s sculptures were very informative when I began photographing the nudes that became the series Bodies – 6 Women, 1 Man.

David: I can see that. The ever-shifting relations between volume and flatness, depth and flatness, the knowable and the unknowable. This is what surfaces seem to be for you, whether the surface is skin, rock, water or the surface of the image itself.

Nadav: Yes, with this interest in these relations, it is no wonder I am so attracted to water, and especially dark water. Anything that alludes to the unknown. When photographing on the Yangtze River I showed man as small against the backdrop of the landscape we have so drastically and quickly altered. This is where portraits of people come in, because a portrait is in a way a closer cropped version of a figure in a landscape.

David: It is interesting that you put it this way. Very often I find myself wondering what landscapes your sitters were in just before they came to you, what it was – out there in the world – that is on their mind as you make the photograph.

Nadav: A portrait is one way of looking at some facets of our condition. There is a precious and beautiful flicker of understanding, or the opposite, that shows itself for short periods and disappears. These periods, which I must see and try to photograph, are often responses to the light or the atmosphere that the light imbues. I must try to recognise them as an image that has what I love: depth of feeling, vulnerability and poise, pride and soul, a recognition of something more than just this moment now. Little of this is clear to me, but this is the best I can do to explain it.