To Be Precise

Celebrated landscape and portrait photographer Nadav Kander reflects on his very first camera, a Pentax Spotmatic F

When I was young there was a walk-in cupboard in my house that smelt of the leather cases of equipment stored there… various mechanical things such as movie cameras owned by my grandfather. I would go in, wind the cameras up and listen to them whirl in the dark; I must have been eight years old. To this day the smell of leather still reminds me of machines and quality.

I was 12 when I caught a bus to a store called Dion in Johannesburg. I looked at the cameras and started saving, and a year later returned to buy a Pentax Spotmatic F, the last camera to use a screw-in lens rather than a bayonet. I also bought extension tubes, which are used between the lens and the camera body to get extremely close to things. My first pictures were of dead flies on a windowsill. It was 1974.

I didn’t stay with the Pentax but I see a thread that runs through my work, from those early fly pictures to the present. I’ve always liked to look into things, to show things not easily seen with the eye, or that are not easily noticed – things photographed beautifully that are difficult or hard to look at. I take pictures of vulnerability, terror, love, horror – never of people smiling; I like to look at what is underneath.

This camera is still in perfect condition. I loved it as an object, the clicks it made and the feeling of focusing the lens. I loved its precision, and it’s that that led me into photography – not the need to make pictures, but the need to use an instrument with great precision.

As told to Dan Crowe

Photography Suzie Howell

Find out Port’s favourite digital SLRs here

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.

In My End Is My Beginning: The Thames Estuary

Port speaks to photographer Nadav Kander about his latest exhibition, exploring the desolate and moving landscapes of the Thames Estuary

Water I part 1, 2 & 3 (Shoeburyness towards The Isle of Grain), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

My grandmother would tell me stories of how, as a child, she watched the great cargo ships pass along the Thames at Greenwich, having crossed hundred of miles from all corners of the Empire to find their berth in London. To visit the same spot today is to see a completely different river, a strangely empty space in the centre of an ever growing, ever more bustling city, the river now only populated by the occasional river bus, unable to accommodate the vast modern ships and their demand for deep water ports.

Downstream, past Tilbury and Gravesend – once gateposts to the city, now quietening county towns – the river widens and stretches out to the sea. As in the city, the traffic from what was once the busiest shipping lane in the world has all but disappeared, but here the level, featureless marshland and mud flats lining the Thames are only inhabited by dormant industry and crumbling Victorian forts. This is where, in the fog and half-light, the photographer Nadav Kander has been working intermittently since the Summer of 2015.

Time II (All Hallows towards Canvey Island), England, 2015

Over his now long and celebrated career, Kander has gained much recognition for his portraiture, such as for his subversive image of the then president-elect Donald Trump for the TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year cover in 2016. Formally uncluttered and sensitively lit, Kander’s portraits of actors and architects, artists and politicians are at once instantly familiar and completely alien, the sitters arrestingly meditative and still, dislocated from the cluttered circus of public life. It is this sense of meditation, of stillness and ultimately of time, that plays an essential part in Kander’s latest series, Dark Line – The Thames Estuary, currently exhibited at Flowers Gallery in east London

“The Estuary has always been a mystical place for me,” Kander tells me on the phone from his studio in London, the day after the exhibition’s opening. “It’s such a bleak and interesting place. There’s a sense of the history there that sits on your shoulder when you make a work like this, a sense of Man’s grit and toil, the loss of love and life, and everything that was once so rich in that river.”

Water VI (Hadleigh Ray towards Yantles Creek and The Hoo), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Indeed, while Kander’s atmospheric, gloomy images are unpopulated – human activity only hinted at through an abandoned, half-flooded pill box or the shadow of heavy industry on the horizon – this is a series that is centred on humanity and its relationship with its environment. The Thames, once the central artery of London, connecting the city to the world, host to Romans, Vikings and ships from ever further reaches of the globe, has only recently fallen quiet – it is this eerie and uncanny emptiness captured by Kander that is so compelling.

The exhibition also features a film, presented in the same elongated portrait format as the photographs (inspired by Chinese scroll paintings), that shows Kander lying in water from the Estuary, alternately rising above and descending beneath the surface. Set to a gently throbbing music by the German-British composer Max Richter, the film develops the artistic themes of the photographic work, evoking the tide and the cycles of life that predate the use of the Thames by humans, and that will continue long after it.

Horizons II (All Hallows towards London Gateway Port), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Dark Line forms part of a wider body of work concerned with water that began artistically with his series on the Yangtze river in China, which received the Prix Pictet prize in 2009, though Kander traces his fascination with water to an experience he had as a child. “When I was six years old I got my first pair of goggles and went swimming. When I turned away from the shore, to see the sand sloping away into blackness, I was terrified,” he remembers. “I ran straight out of the water. I had recurring dreams about that well into my 30s, but it was not so much a fear of the water but a human condition to fear the unknown.”

This – our very human, very primal response to large bodies of water – is the wider and more instinctive attraction of Dark Line. There is a sense of the infinite, both in the endless horizons and in the unceasing, slow moving water which, as Kander says, can inspire fear and melancholy as much as it can a sense of beauty and destiny. “Ultimately it’s much less a documentary work about the Thames Estuary and more a fantastic metaphor for ending and widening and renewal,” he explains. “I think it was T.S. Eliot who wrote, ‘In my end is my beginning.’”

Silt I (Mucking towards Thames Haven), England, 2017, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

I ask Kander how he plans to continue to develop his fascination with water, but he cuts me short. “I don’t feel my work with the Thames Estuary is finished yet. Being so connected to London, there’s something personal to me in this project. I definitely want to stay here, for now anyway.”

Dark Line – The Thames Estuary runs at Flowers Gallery at 82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP until 13th January 2018.

Paris Photo 2017

Port visits the 2017 edition of Paris Photo to discover stories of the African diaspora, the nude reinterpreted and disaffected youth on the streets of Los Angeles 

Nanny et Quao, Jamaïque, 1720 2017, © Omar Victor Diop. Exhibited by MAGNIN-A

With over 180 galleries and publishers represented, Paris Photo is the largest international art fair dedicated to photography. As such, when I visit the Grand Palais in Paris, just off the Champs-Élysées, is full to its ornate Rococo rafters with photographers, curators and art-lovers from around the world. It was even possible to catch a glimpse of the elusive Patti Smith, one of this year’s guest curators. Here, we take a look at the highlights of the fair.

An artist who immediately catches the eye is Omar Victor Diop, a Senegalese photographer who takes elaborately staged photographs of people (including himself) presented in various historical guises. These allegorical portraits focus on stories from the African diaspora over time, and his subjects, formally composed and framed against a background, have the air of oil paintings. When I mention this to him, Diop laughs. “Good. If I had the skill to paint, I would never touch a camera.”

Untitled, from the series ‘Halo’, 2017, © Rinko Kawauchi/ Courtesy Christophe Guye

Over at the Christophe Guye gallery, Rinko Kawauchi’s serene images of cherry blossom, migrating birds and candy-coloured fireworks are peaceful and dreamlike. The recipient of the Annual Infinity Award in 2009 from New York’s Centre of Photography, Kawauchi makes everyday scenes and objects extraordinary.

‘Oh man’, from the book Oh Man, 2013. © Lise Sarfati. Exhibited by Steidl

Algerian-born French artist Lise Sarfati’s large-scale panoramas of disaffected youth are set against the streets decaying inner-Los Angeles. Her images of aloof, solitary young men have echoes of William Eggleston in their faded pastel palette and emphasis on the minutiae of American life. 

Yellow Passage by James Casebere, © Galerie Templon

James Casebere’s sundrenched, angular photographs offer a vision of modern architecture devoid of all human life. Casebere’s deserted, hectically coloured rooms combine a striking visual sensibility with an uncanny sense of foreboding.

Cherry Tree from The Appearance of Things, 2016, © Jocelyn Lee and Pace/MacGill

At Pace/MacGill, two of the artists exhibited focus on reinterpreting the female nude. Jocelyn Lee’s flame-haired women among the cherry blossoms feels inspired both by the cinematography of Sofia Coppola, and the verdant imagery of the Pre-Raphaelites, though the washed-out tones and slightly blurred focus seem to promise something more unwholesome. Richard Learoyd’s Freya offers an entirely stripped-back depiction of femininity, the shaven-headed model reclining on a moth-eaten sofa, her pose communicating uneasy rest.

Freya, Nude horizontal, © Richard Learoyd and Pace/MacGill

Heading upstairs to ‘Prismes’, the sector of the fair dedicated to exhibiting large format photography, video installation, or otherwise exceptional work, the Sator gallery is the only area of the Grand Palais completely shrouded in darkness. Greek visual artist Evangelia Kranioti’s startling video installation stills gleam in the dim light, the saturated, oozing colours and fantastical imagery evoking both fairytale and nightmare.

L’extase doit être oubliée (Still), by Evangelia Kranioti. © Galerie Sator

Elsewhere, in a more illuminated area of ‘Prismes’, Nadav Kander’s sombre, gray scale images of rough seas and deserted beaches – including an exquisite triptych of raging water taken from his Thames Estuary series – quietly demand the viewer’s complete attention. 

Water I, Shoeburyness towards the Isle of Grain, by Nadav Kander, 2015. © FLOWERS

Cover image courtesy of Paris Photo

Paris Photo 2017 runs at the Grand Palais until 12th November 2017