Nadav Kander

Portrait: George Marshall | Landscapes: Nadav Kander

With subjects ranging from Barack Obama to the Yangtze River, Nadav Kander’s photography is brooding and beguiling. Born in Israel and raised in South Africa, he is an artist who has garnered plaudits and awards worldwide. This week, he launches a new body of work, Dust, a series of images capturing the ruined cities of the Cold War, on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. We stepped inside his North London studio to meet him, and began by discussing one of his most prized works, a steel road bike built by Dario Pegoretti.

With a custom bike the paint job can often be difficult. How did you arrive at yours?
I took a picture of Dario and his bikes and made a template of the frame. I tried again and again but it’s hard to make a bike look good, as it’s such an odd shape. And that was before I put the black components on. I wanted the names [of his wife and children] on the top tube. And Dario wanted to use a colour [yellow] that he’d seen in my Yangtze photography.

I understand you were a motorcyclist when you were younger?
I had a Triumph T110 and a Motto Guzzi… until I came off and smashed my knee up. Now I have one leg much stronger than the other. Oddly, I only get the pain of lactic acid in the stronger leg and when I get about 60km into a ride, my knee starts to swell and my body gets uncomfortable from the unevenness.

Chongqing VII (Washing Bike), Chongqing Municipality
Chongqing VII (Washing Bike), Chongqing Municipality

Was the accident how you came to develop a love for cycling?
I suppose, going right back, what I love about cycling is the same thing I love about manual cameras. I love just how beautifully bikes are made, the gearing, the metal-on-metal etc. Like the rings of the camera and the click of the shutter, I love working on them and with them. But I also love the amazing R&D, the way bikes slice through the air, how smooth they are.

The road bike is the most amazing mode of transport. When you can ride 100 miles and have a sociable time, I love those rides. When it starts to get a bit competitive, that’s when I drop off. I prefer the coffee group. As for the pain and suffering, when I’ve climbed Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez, I’ve been really proud of myself. It’s a great feeling to know that, whatever the hill, you can do it. I might not be as quick as Pantani but I’ll do it.

And what about riding in the city?
I ride everywhere and hardly use the car. For meetings around town, I just change my shoes and jump on the bike.

You’ve been based in London for a long time. Why here?
The reason I came is because this was the best place to soak up art, and especially photography. And it still is because the British have always put on a pedestal, always embraced, the new. Anything original, be it the best young cellist, theatre designer or photographer, it’s celebrated in this city. It’s so vibrant, I don’t know another city like it.

You are renowned for your portraits. Do you need to be sympathetic to your subjects?
No, I don’t think I’m sympathetic when I take a portrait. And I don’t particularly get to know my subjects either.

Does landscape work, like the Yangtze or your new series, Dust, require a different approach to portraiture?
All my landscape is about humanness, how it feels to be human. I never do landscape for nature’s sake, or even landscape’s sake. It’s always about the palm print of man, how we interact with our surroundings; it’s where man touches nature that I’m interested in.

How do you choose your subjects?
There has to be something that attracts you to a place. In the case of Dust, we’re talking about cities that were kept secret for 30 years during the Cold War. That’s the attraction, I want to see what’s so secret, to show the darkness of that part of man’s history. Once I’m there, all I’m concerned about are the photogenic qualities of the place. Portraiture is no different. All I’m looking for is how to make an interesting picture.

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011
The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan 2011

Francis Bacon was a great example; he gave away so little but you feel so much. I try not to tell you too much but make you interested enough to fill in the gaps. Someone who is overlit and smiling is incredibly boring, but someone underlit, perhaps half turning away, you start to fill in the emotions, like melancholy, vulnerability, depression, happiness or whatever. That’s up to the viewer and landscape is no different. You can imbue a landscape with a lot of who you are.

When shooting on location, do you have an idea of what you’ll photograph each day?
I went for about 18 days each time [five trips over two years]. I just really get in a zone and work extremely hard, I’m possessed by it. I chose different points along the river, asked people if there was anything interesting nearby, then went to find it. It’s about travelling around and picking up on the atmosphere, which in some parts of China I found strange, the people there seem to just… exist.

Do you think that, as a photographer, travelling keeps you more versatile?
When I do a long stint in the studio I can’t wait to get out and mix it up. A lot of people ask how I do so many different things and I don’t really know. Because I’m the common denominator, it’s not that different whatever I’m doing.

I read you got arrested in Kazakhstan while shooting Dust?
Yeah, both times. That’s why I didn’t go a third time.

There’s one picture that actually looks like a nuclear blast.
Yes that was the Polygon, which was a Russian nuclear test site, which I visited at the end of the last day. You can only spend one day at a time there as it’s still dangerous. I had a Geiger counter with me and once it makes a continual noise you must back away, until it’s clicking again.

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011
Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011

I imagine that’s quite a disturbing noise in itself?
It is and as I say in the foreword of the book, you’re concentrating on the look of the photograph, but you’re reminded of how dark this place is by the clicking of the Geiger counter. It’s a weird place.

You seem to document a lot of decay in these places?
The ruin is really interesting, not that I knew it beforehand. I’ve only looked up ruins and seen their significance in the context of art afterwards, which is how I usually work. I don’t do too much research beforehand. The same is true with people, I never look up what people have done before I photograph them, I only look at their faces in pictures. Ruins lend gravitas to a landscape, a sense of the past and the decay reminds us of our own mortality.

Not judging subjects by their achievements must be difficult, Barack Obama for example?
Yes of course, you know so much about him already. But I only look at people’s pictures so I can see how I might think of how to light them. I’m not interested in whether they studied at Harvard, I’m not looking for things to talk about. My homework is more in their face than in what they’ve done. I’m not a fan of retouching images to soften skin or anything like that. You can see a person’s history in their face.

Dust by Nadav Kander runs from 10th September until 11th October at the Flowers Gallery in London (flowersgallery.com). The accompanying Monograph, and featuring an essay by Will Self, is published by Hatje Cantz.

Nadav’s work will also feature at the upcoming show at the Barbican – Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age – between 25 September 2014 and 11 January 2015.