Pan & The Dream - The Emperor's New Clothes
Los Angeles Review of Books Interview by Michael Kurcfeld
Professional Photography, Text by Kathrine Anker
American SuburbX, Text by Brad Feuerhelm
Christies: Artist Nadav Kander Studio Visit
Dust Artist Interview, Flowers Gallery , London
The Strait Times, Text by Deepika Shetty
Dust Interview, Studio International
Dust Review - haunting and painterly. Text by Sean O'Hagan
The Guardian, Text by Jonathan Jones
Nadav Kander Interviewed by William Avedon
Road to 2012: Aiming High, National Portrait Gallery, London
The Observer Magazine, Text by Sandy Nairne
A Conversation with Nadav Kander by Jorg Colberg
The Guardian, Text by Sean O'Hagan
Color Magazine, Text by Helmut Werb
Portfolio Magazine, Text by Simon Baker
Yangtze, The Long River Interview by Lens Culture
Hot Shoe, Interview by Bill Kouwenhoven
Prix Pictet Announcement
Nadav Kander in collaboration with the Royal College of Art
The Financial Times, Text by Francis Hodgson
Miedzy Nami Magazine, Interview By Jakub Mielnik
Hot Shoe, Interview by Bill Kouwenhoven

Nadav Kander The Making of Obama’s People

Luck sometimes does fall to the lucky and talented. Such is the case with Nadav Kander, one of the top photographers working today. In late fall last year, Kander received a once in a lifetime commission for Kathy Ryan, Photo Editor of The New York Times Magazine to photograph the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama. What is notable about this is that the Times made the call before the actual election. Yet more notable is that Kander was given the unique opportunity to shoot the entire issue of the magazine, something that had no precedent in the history of the paper. Over two trips to the US in December and January, Kander made a series of unique portraits of 52 of the principle members of Obama’s Administration. From Eugene Kang, the boyish Special Assistant to the President, to Obama’s financial wizards Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, to other heavy hitters such as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden, these images present not just the face of this new administration but also represent the face of the nation as a new generation takes power in America.

Published on 18 January 2009, five days before the inauguration, this special issue of The New York Times Magazine sold out instantly. The rights to hold the World Premiere of the Obama portraits were won by Rhonda Wilson, Creative Director of Rhubarb-Rhubarb, the UK’s International Portfolio Festival. The exhibition is presented at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery through 30 August 2009. An encompassing programme of lectures and talks accompanies the exhibition. Bill Kouwenhoven talked with Nadav Kander about what went on in the making of this history-making project.

How did you get this extraordinary, once in a lifetime commission from The New York Times Magazine? 
Kathy Ryan, the Photo Editor of The New York Times Magazine, and I have worked together in the past. She called me the day they took the position that Barack Obama was going to win the election. They realized that everybody was trying to run pictures of him and that nobody was doing anything about his cabinet and administration. They asked me how I would approach the project.
I called her back and told her that I wanted to do them all basically the same. I described to her that by doing some people in black and white and some in colour with this lighting or that lighting it would look far too “Hollywoody”. I felt that this document would have its real power in twenty years. I mean, who knows if we were photographing the next president or two. It would be much more powerful if one treated it more subtly and did not give it a “date” by photographing it with a specific style of lighting…
I felt that the Obama people were no bullshit, new contemporary, intelligent people, so for me, it had to be colour.

What considerations went through your head as you thought about the project? 
It was nerve wracking, of course, but what worried me was that these people, all very intelligent, were not my normal subjects—actors or people who are concerned with how they look and who collaborate with the camera. Many of these people had never had more pictures than the usual family snapshots that a normal person would have had. There were very few of the 52 who had the kind of experience that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton had.
We shot it over two periods of time in five different venues, building up and tearing down the sets each time, and security had to go through everything. Realizing that, I also knew that my approach would have to be somewhat athletic and that some people might not have much time or patience. I also did not want it to be frustrating for all concerned. My usual approach is to have a real opinion about a person when I meet them and to respond to what I am seeing and feeling and to light accordingly. I am not really interested in “documentary”, per se, nor the decisive moment. The other thing that terrified me was that this portfolio would date. The main thing for me was that in twenty years’ time, I only wanted what the people were wearing, their hairstyles, their ties, and their Blackberries to date them.

How did you work? 
It was very important to me to make very accurate portraits, and I suppose the way that I made sure they were accurate was not to direct too much. I only watched them very carefully as they walked into a room and as they interacted with other people as they waited for their turn. I was watching for the economy of gesture. The Times and I emailed every single person and asked them to bring whatever they might think seemed to define them. Barack Obama’s “Body Man”, Reggie Love, had his headphones and all the pens that he gives to him to sign all kinds of things. Senator Casey brought a basketball because while on the campaign trail he played most days with Obama using that ball. David Axelrod brought a chocolate chip cookie. We decided not to use the cookie, and he ate it. He is Barack Obama’s main, main guy and is fantastic and brought laughter to the room. I like that little thing that just shows so much more about them.
I decided to light it very simply [with two big softboxes and a seamless white backdrop] and then to add the shadows that I added later because one’s brain always expects that sort of lighting to have no shadow. So when one introduces a shadow, one’s brain gets confused and this sends a message to you that something is a little odd. That is what I wanted. It is just that little bit of mustard that I wanted to put into the pudding. I need a kind of one-on-one, not only to respond to me, not only my words but my willingness to make a good photograph. That is very unspoken. We shot digitally with a Hasselblad and a Leaf back tethered to a computer. I never like to see what I am photographing. Only Kathy and some of the sitters, perhaps 50% of them, would look at the computer screen. We had to edit on the fly. Most people liked what they saw and would leave. It was very casual, much more casual than I thought it would be at the outset, and that is what sums up America.

You did not shoot everybody the same way. Some are full figured, some are sitting, some are headshots. 
It was instinctual. Some people just wouldn’t work standing up and needed to sit. I had imagined a body of pictures that showed more variation. I think there is not enough flavour to our dress as there was earlier. Even when Avedon did the people in power during the Nixon era there were umbrellas, and sticks, and hats, and bow ties. I also think that we would have lost the plot if everybody had been exactly the same. There were certain people that I felt would look better closer in like Denis McDonough, the man with the pencil above his ear. That’s a great one. These people are very happy, but they were working very hard in these pictures as they prepared for the transition.

How much post-production did you use beyond the shadowing? 
I printed on the computer in the same way that I would in the darkroom. This use of shadowing, done in a somewhat casual way, comes from my days in the darkroom. I like that flavour. I am not trying to do it accurately in that respect. That was my time on a computer—perhaps an hour or two at most printing.

What is interesting is that this administration, except some of the more senior senators, is approximately our age, mid-40s. It seems almost a portrait of a generation. We have all creative grown up on the same sort of visual culture and familiarity with images. It seems looser, somehow, even if some of these people like incoming Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner was totally busy preparing for the transition and attempting to save the economy. What was your aim with this work?
It was about showing this group of human beings as they really are. I also realized that these are the people who’d be running the U.S.A. if not the whole world. I tried to get to the core thing the best way I could. I shot them as 52 individuals, but I realized that these people who have their jackets or are standing so casually in front of me showing us how they truly are quite possibly the people of our generation. That is very impressive. I think there are many levels to it.
I think that with any human being you have a part of you that you put forward when you are being photographed. It is that public face that we either want to be or think that the other person wants to see. We all have that. When you are confident and comfortable in your own skin, it becomes less important. I think that some people present that and you see it very strongly. You see that much less in some others.

Talk about a few people: Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, Nancy Pelosi, and Larry Summers. Geithner looks like he came straight out of an Egon Schiele drawing, and Biden, with his unbelievable hair, looks like the very figure of a senator. 
Timothy Geithner was done during one of the first days. He was obviously deep in policy and trying to work out the big bank bailout. He came in very business-like and very serious. That’s how he looks—very open-eyed and concentrating. It is not just that one portrait, they all looked like that. As soon it was done, he was straight out the door without shaking hands. He was probably the only like that. Rahm Emanuel was lovely and shook all our hands and said that it reminded him of his Bar Mitzvah. We had a good time. I don’t know if he liked the pictures, but everybody who came in said that is exactly him. Most of the aides who came in said similar things about the others. These people were the authors of their own pictures. They presented themselves the way they wanted to be shown. I just composed, photographed, and edited. They were very much a partner in authoring these. Nobody knows how to be themselves better than they do.
Nancy Pelosi was absolutely charming with incredible energy. Before the shooting her aide came and said, please don’t ask her not to smile, because she won’t. She only smiles in photographs.

She is a politician’s daughter, after all. 
Indeed, and I think she wants to look like that, which is equally interesting. I think you could read a lot into that smile. Joe Biden was one of the last we photographed. I think he had seen all of the other portraits and people had told him of them, and so he decided to become part of the project. He came with this absolutely beautiful suit, with his hair and his white white teeth. His stance was the same as if he were at a cocktail party. There was a lot of chatting and story-telling, and then he was gone. He was very slick and very personable, and seemingly very nice. He has a certain gift of also being an “average Joe” in addition to being a senator.

This seems to be something that comes out in you pictures: these people somehow seem authentic and optimistic. Maybe that is wishful thinking after the past eight years. With somebody like Biden or Pelosi, with their public personae, one wonders if they are ever off-duty and unguarded.
That was so remarkable to me. At least 75 % of them seemed absolutely off-duty. They hadn’t stepped into duty yet. They all had civilian jobs and were not partaking in that whole thing. I think so far that this administration has remained separate to that. They don’t want to give themselves away too much to the pressure. The president is the same. He only wants candid pictures.

In retrospect, can you imagine having done anything different? Let’s imagine you get the job to repeat this in four years or eight. What would you expect to see?
I don’t think so. I sometimes think about having lit them more, but I am not sure if I would have regretted that in fifteen years’ time, and so I chose not to do it. Of course, that might stop me from being invited back to do this in the future. I think the interest in this body of work is that the people were so naïve to the process. I don’t think they’ll be like that in four years. I am afraid they’ll become quite cynical about photography by then, and I hope I have not helped that.

We hope you do get invited back four years from now and even eight. 
Thank you for saying that.