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‘There has to be a new way. And it is coming.’
Gems in this
Born in Tel Aviv, raised in Johannesburg, and living in London, renowned photographic artist Nadav Kander has lived almost 50 years with a camera in hand. He’s photographed President Obama, David Attenborough, Sophia Loren, Werner Herzog, and David Lynch. He’s traveled from Rome and Los Angeles to Chernobyl, Kazakhstan, and the Yangtze River in China.
Movement for Nadav has always served as a means for deeper knowledge. Through his travels, Nadav has been able to interrogate the human condition and produce work that is quietly brave and exudes rawness and honesty. Whether you’re looking at one of his vast landscapes or an intimate portrait, there’s an eerie stillness and sense of solitude within the frame. From his studio in Kentish Town, Nadav spoke with us about enduring cultural histories, Soho in the ’80s and where he seeks inspiration in London.
On the pull of Europe
I visited Europe when I was 13. It was the first time I left South Africa and I just fell in love with all of the life on the streets and how anonymous you could be. I was always going to come back. As soon as I finished my mandatory army stint in South Africa, I came here to London. There was the promise of much greater photography teachers and apprenticeships, and getting away from apartheid.
On those early days in London
In the ’80s, London was the place for photography. I didn't know anybody. I didn't have any family here. And I was incredibly shy. I lived in the basement of a hotel for a year. Finding assisting work took a long time so I would wander the streets and take pictures. I loved how you could be absorbed into the throngs. I loved finding steamy cafés and quirky shops, or you’d turn a corner and there's a 200-year-old establishment selling boating equipment or ground-up rocks for making pottery glazes. I went to The Photographers’ Gallery a lot. I’d buy my lunches there and look at the work and the bookshop. I landed an assisting job, which I kept for about three years, and that's how I grew. Really, in short, since the age of 17, I’ve been about making work and printing work and very little else.
On where you were born
I was born in Tel Aviv. I left when I was two and a half because my father's job came to a sudden end. He was a pilot and one of the founders of El Al, but he lost an eye and was grounded. I think my mother's mother had just died, and my parents decided to go live with my grandfather in Johannesburg. I grew up in South Africa, staying until I was 21, which is when I came to London. I don't think I had a terribly happy time in South Africa. There was a real underlying aggression. Apartheid was the undercurrent, but I'm also talking white-on-white.
On your early creative environment
I came from a family where everyone was either painting or were sculptors or potters. My mother is a poet and my sister is an artist. At the bottom of our garden, there was this 1930s painting studio that my aunt used. Art was always everybody else's thing, it wasn't mine. Then when I was about 12 I remember taking pictures and they were well-received, that was the first time I’d done something that was admired. School was really difficult for me. It wasn't working out. So I really took to photography — I bought a camera with my own money and started taking pictures. At first, I fell in love with the mechanical aspects of photography more than the final result. Then once I started, I saw photography as a way of becoming an expert — which is something I always wanted to be.
‘I would wander the streets of London and take pictures. I loved how you could be absorbed into the throngs. I loved finding steamy cafés and quirky shops.’
On intergenerational experiences that carry down
Generationally, there's been a lot of persecution and movement in my family. My mother’s father had immigrated from Ukraine to England to South Africa. On my father's side, from Germany and Switzerland to Israel. That is the story of the Jews. I'm not practising at all, but it’s certainly in my DNA. All of these things that are at a cellular level, are you. They become your personality — things that can't be explained from your own history. You might not have experienced it yourself, but it's really handed down. One stunts the story when you only talk about your own movement on this planet.
On Rome before lockdown
I did a project in Rome, which was responding to the enduring generations that are present around us. I photographed the fallen Rome at night — stones that had fallen, all the amazing ruins that are there. How comforting it is to think about how we are not just the short 80 years that we live, instead we are made up of so many generations. The project was commissioned by Rome and was shown for four months at Palazzo Delle Esposizioni. It was right before lockdown so I couldn’t return. Both of my recent series The Pause and Enduring Generations are only about 18 pictures long, while all the other projects I’ve made are longer form.
On traveling back to a place for authenticity
I don't think of ideas and then shoot according to a script. When I went to the Yangtze River, all I knew was that China was rapidly changing. But in another way, it was becoming attached to this idea of catching up and mirroring the West, so in a sense it felt shackled. It was 2006. The change was so rapid that it felt unnatural to its population. I just went, and I chose the Yangtze River as a starting point because I gravitate to water, but it also kept me on a pathway. On the first trip, I went to the mouth and traveled halfway up the river to Chongqing. I came back to England and worked with the photographs on and off for about six months. Then I went back. Each time I got better and better, and started to hit a certain note. I'd look at the work and realise what that note was. And each time I went back, I would become more economical and more precise. That's how I work. I go back and back (in this case five times) so that I feel authentic about how this work is coming from a deep place in me or in my history. It's very, very intuitive. I'm not trying to be clever.
On your perspective within the work
I get so concentrated when I go to places like Chernobyl or the Yangtze River that all I'm thinking about is the work I'm making. All I'm doing is looking deeply and trying to make the work emotive. The work embodies how I feel, either about what I see or about myself — often the latter. In a way, the place becomes the stage and I become director and author.
‘All of these things that are at a cellular level, are you...One stunts the story when you only talk about your own movement on this planet.’
On authorship in art
I really love seeing the clear authorship of an artist. It's more accessible to see it in a painting or a sculpture. It's harder in photography. The uphill struggle with photography is that it's so laden by the age-old idea that a photograph is always about the event that happens in front of the camera. It's really old fashioned, yet it hangs on. Everything is about where one points one's camera — the millisecond of photography — but it can be so much more telling of the artist. Not always, but it can be. Look at Jeff Wall, for instance — he would be a pioneer in this regard. Mark Rothko said “A painting is not a picture of an experience; but it is the experience”. It takes much control to work in this way with photography.
On your work as a self-reflective practice
For me, there is an attraction to vulnerability, quiet, loneliness and the melancholic. I find these conditions very beautiful. I’m not comfortable with loneliness in myself, but there's great nourishment in the lonely landscape, or quiet waters, even darkness — appearing and reappearing. My work is ever-changing, but some things remain consistent. Whether it’s a portrait or landscape, there’s a thread that courses through everything I do. I'm trying, consistently, to make pictures of the human condition.
On capturing the uncomfortable
I find it very interesting that I gravitate to a Rothko or Franz Kline abstract painting and a Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter. There's a quiet brooding. Much more going on than just surface. I find the obscured face far more interesting than the face that just looks towards you. The distorted or shrouded face is far more alluring. It asks of you so much more. Bleak scenes, photographed beautifully: this is uncomfortable but tantalising too. Caspar Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Fog’ shows a man from behind, he looks into the unknown. You’re observing him. It's the unknown that is interesting, the things that remain unanswered, which is kind of the same as uncomfortable. And I'm not clued up to what the answer is. But I'm hoping it invigorates the viewer to look longer, and look into themselves.
‘When you become too familiar, you lose your eyes for something. So you leave, and then when you return, you're fresh and clear and excited again.’
On first meetings with people and places
If one approaches a person from a place of feeling rather than a place of thinking, you might get to know them much better than reading their Wikipedia page. When we meet, (knowing a portrait will be made), it's a very personal and entirely original meeting. A person walks into my studio with all of their white shirts, black shirts, underwear, all packed into this bag they carry with them — which is a metaphorical suitcase of life experiences. And those experiences include everything from their ancestors right through to if it was raining today. I have the same. Then we come together and that's the beginning of the dance. It sounds odd, but in a way I can see clearly the person that I don’t know well. I can of course photograph someone I know, but it's not the same. You've got so much history with the person and that may distort the clarity. It's the same with a landscape. You become too familiar and you lose your eyes for it. So you leave, and then when you return, you're fresh and clear and excited again.
On the Lost Soho
When I came to London, all of the photographers that one might assist were in W1. Everybody was there. David Bailey was in Brownlow Mews. Peter Hopkins was in Newman Street. Terrence Donovan was in Rathbone Place. Everybody was around there and then everybody got priced out. The Soho that I loved then was almost out of a Dickens novel. Little streets that were dimly lit. Chinatown. It was amazing. I would always go to one Italian deli, Lina Stores on Brewer Street — it’s still there. But everything has become gentrified now. I suppose that’s the big change. Younger people moved to the East End, so it’s the area with the most change, the most progressive thinking. When I first came across Broadway Market with the pie and mash shop, it was typical of an East End “then”. Now the area has become super expensive. But then the same story would be of New York. Manhattan has become incredibly mundane, everything happens in Brooklyn. But now people are starting to say that rents are dropping so much in Manhattan and artists are returning. In London, that hasn’t happened.
On the enduring favorites in London
I live near Primrose Hill, so I love and know the park well. Highgate Cemetery in North London, as a graveyard goes, is a good one. It’s overgrown and your imagination can get carried away. For art, I think it depends so much on the show. The Hayward Gallery is fantastic, the Serpentine Gallery is fantastic. The Tate. It’s too hard to choose. I like Victoria Miro a lot too. Their space is quite theatrical and they install so well and use their building so cleverly.
‘London is very feminine. The way the streets curve; it’s not a grid form. Everything is quite soft. The air is soft. The rain is soft. People’s skins are soft.’
On the rural-ness of the city
I cycle a lot and I love going to Richmond Park. I think it’s really incredible at six in the morning, or seven in the winter, when there’s a mist and the deer horns protrude above it. It’s amazing to imagine that you are in London when you’re riding there.
On where humanity is headed
My generation has seen so much growth in numbers and in wealth and we’ve taken so much from the Earth. We grew up thinking this was normal. I think that there has to be a new way. And it is coming. The young generation will forge a new paradigm. I can’t wait for there to be a more community-based world. One that looks at how healthy the community is rather than just one’s self. That would be my wish and I feel it’s urgent. Because we’re not going to last 50 years without a massive change in consciousness.
‘I can’t wait for there to be a more community-based world. One that looks at how healthy the community is rather than just one’s self. That would be my wish and I feel it’s urgent.’
On a window or an aisle seat
I always sit in the aisle. I like to get up and chat and get stuff. I don’t like being penned in. Ever.
On London in one word
I’ve always found London to be incredibly inclusive. If you are on the fringe in any way in your thinking or your body type or skin colour or anything, this is a great place to live. And I think the whole time that I’ve lived in England, I’ve met people that have come from other countries that have said ‘I’m here because of that’. ‘I’m here because I’m gay.’ ‘I’m here because I’m Black.’ ‘I’m here because I have one arm.’ I love that. And people find it very hard to leave and go home after experiencing this. The way the streets curve; it’s not a grid form. Everything is quite soft. The air is soft. The rain is soft. People’s skins are soft.