London-based photographer Nadav Kander has won awards and international acclaim for his genre-spanning editorial, art and advertising work. Known especially for portraits and landscapes, Kander has conjured compelling stories from photographic subjects ranging from hotel rooms to China’s boundless Yangtze River (his series, Yangtze—The Long River was made into a book and earned the photographer the Prix Pictet in 2009). He has taken unforgettable photos of artists, celebrities, and politicians (including an acclaimed 52-portrait series Obama’s People) for newspapers and magazines, and his work has also been featured in art galleries, including the public collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In the last few years, Kander expanded his range further, moving into directing through production company Chelsea Pictures.
Recently, GQ commissioned Kander to create a series of portraits to accompany interviews with actors known for playing villains. The artist saw it as an opportunity, however, to bring those characters to life in another dimension. Along with each magazine portrait, Kander directed an additional short film depicting each actor performing what appeared to be dark and disturbing acts, which turned out to be mundane and banal. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem, and as with much of Kander’s best work, the GQ portraits and videos speak to the viewer’s imagination as well as to the depth of the subjects being photographed.
Below, Kander shares with us the keys to taking a compelling portrait.
[For the GQ shoot], the idea was that these people are the villains of Hollywood. The magazine wanted them to not be banal, Hollywood, over-lit pictures. I didn’t spend very long with the actors and one of the reasons is that I always light before the person arrives. I always have some sort of idea of how I think they will look interesting, according to who they are or their face structure. Then, even before they get dressed, I like to do one or two quick pictures to see if I’m on the right track. After that I get the lighting to really feel right and look great on them. Generally, I don’t spend that long. It could be 10 or 15 minutes with a person. Sometimes longer, but not much longer: 20 minutes, half an hour. Once a person settles down and becomes comfortable, it’s almost too comfortable. So the first 10 minutes are incredibly important, which is why I try to get my lighting right from the go.
I do find that, as hard as it is to be simple, the more you pare things down the more clear-sighted it is, and the quicker you can make people feel emotional about it. A really strong example of that is the pictures of Obama’s People, where I took the subjects out of context, put them on a pure, very plain background, and just photographed exactly how they are and exactly how they stand. Those were very accurate portraits, and I think that props can do the same thing. If you are working very simply and you just introduce very little—a chess piece or a hand holding something in front of a face—the portrait becomes heightened, it becomes quite sharp. It’s because the pictures are so plain and clear. It just sometimes feels right to include something. I don’t often do it, though.
When I started the "Titans of the Stage" project for The New York Times, the first one I did was a tight portrait of Mark Rylance’s face. For some reason, I thought to go to the theater for some of the others, and so I started working with a background. I wanted to make them slightly theatrical. I’m very taken by Osborne sets of the '50s, where things are sort of obviously set, but very clear. I like that very clear line and set. I’m very influenced by the whole Contructivist movement of the '20s and '30s in Paris, which emphasized lines and compositions. Most of these "Titans of the Stage" shots are on sets I made. My work is very composed; not rigid, but it’s always got a very strong composition.
I’m often less concerned with fashion. I think it can bring a lot to the portrait, a person wearing the right thing, but I tend to not get involved. If there’s a stylist around, I defer to them, but if it’s the subjects themselves, I generally tell them to come in wearing what they think would make a good picture.
In "Titans of the Stage," Patrick Stewart is wearing a big piece of felt. From the second I spoke to a stylist on that job, I said I really wanted a cape. Somehow somebody in this series has to wear a cape. Theater actors. England. I want a cape. She couldn’t find one, though, so we had this big piece of, I think it was felt from under the carpet. We literally cut a hole in it, and once it fell over him and made that shape, I said to him, "How about opening your mouth?" and he did. Then we looked at the picture and refined it more, and we came with that screaming pope image. I think you can make a great picture from anything, so I’m not trying to style every bit of it, and I think if you do, at some point you lose the authenticity. And I really like being authentic. I think we’re all longing for some truth in portraiture.
Blurred for me is not so much that the picture is actually blurred, it’s that there’s a lot unseen. I think blurred is the same as putting a shadow over a face. When you don’t quite see what it is, it alludes to a shadow, to one’s own shadow, the parts we’re not sure about, and of course that’s much more alluring than the opposite. That’s why I blur things, and I would do it more if people didn’t need things to look so recognizable.
I’ve always thought that to shroud or obscure or shadow a face—all these things are far more alluring than an over-lit face. It’s so much interesting to find out things than to just be presented with everything. I think you know that in many parts of life. You can tell more, and read so much more into a picture, if very little is given to you. A great example is Rothko. In his paintings—which are just dark red against even darker red—you’re almost being told nothing, and yet you feel something. You feel a heavy composition, a heavy weight, and it moves you. When you go to a great piece of theatre, what you respond to most is a feeling. If I do it all from my head, what I’m going to get is a very unemotional picture that’s going to be not that interesting. I don’t always achieve the emotional element, but that’s the area I work in.
I like to work with theater actors or film actors. I think they naturally understand how a body in 3-D space can really make an atmosphere, while a politician absolutely doesn’t—it’s not their work at all. I can go much further much quicker with good actors. Whether I’m talking about what it feels like to daydream, or how they would look at somebody in the far distance, how it felt when they were five years old. Actors are very used to working with their feelings and their emotions, and they’re quite used to transferring them into a scene, and a seen space so I can see it. You can’t talk to a Secretary of State like that.
Working with politicians is entirely different. It’s only entirely different in how I am and how I get to the place I need to go, but I will have to talk to a politician in a much more cerebral way. I’ll be discussing where they might look and how it was to be at a certain state of their career, maybe. I might ask them to look left, or I might have noticed that they had their hands in their pockets when they walked in and so I ask them if they want to put their hands back in their pockets. I want to slowly make them feel like themselves. I’m not particularly trying to relax them, I just want to make a point where a viewer will look at it and see something interesting.
I’d directed films for a few charities and Mt. Sinai hospital before the GQ shoot. I think that when you have done portraits in the way that I do portraits, you are directing the person in front of you in a very similar way. It might not be a performance from beginning to end, but you are directing a person all the time. I found that when I made these short films that it was really no different. It was intuitive, how to go about directing good actors to do what was in my vision, and also give them enough scope to express themselves. I would tell them my ideas and how I would do it and see what ideas came in their head. They only did one or two takes; I don’t think we filmed a person more than twice.
I’d be open to doing any project that’s really collaborative, and that I could make a strong, visual piece with. I’m very varied with my stills, so I intend to be incredibly varied with my films as well. If it grabs me in my stomach and I can see how it’s going to be amazing, I’m on board.
The most interesting portraits are the ones that show you the person behind the paintbrush, behind the camera, behind the chisel. I think that it’s all about the artist’s personality coming out in whatever they do. I don’t want the technique to be the thing coming between me and the subject. I think that’s very important. You have to feel the emotion first, rather than the technique being overly present. In portraiture, it’s so organic and intuitive for me that it’s difficult to put into words. It’s all about who I am and the emotions that I react to. So when I start to see the emotions that I react to, through my camera, I know I’m getting the pictures I like to make.
It’s a very interesting subject, the moment a picture becomes a portrait. When people say, "Oh, you really got that person, you looked into their soul," I think that’s just nonsense. I think what portraiture does for people is it reflects back on them. [For the GQ shoot], they wanted some kind of atmosphere surrounding the actors. I tend to naturally photograph in a way that shows some depth to people. And often it’s not in the people themselves, but in the viewer. You can use a person in front of you as a catalyst for human emotion. It’s often little about the actual actor, and more about the emotion you feel yourself. And thus all portraiture’s about the viewer equally.