Obama's People

11 September – 10 October 2009

Flowers Gallery
82 Kingsland Road
E2 8DP

Formal and frank, yet playful and stylised, Nadav Kander’s individual portraits of the 53 members of President Obama’s cabinet constitute one of the most significant commissioned photographic series of the decade. This epochal body of work amplifies the quiet communication between artist and sitter, as the photographer conjures the characters of his subjects through a unique appreciation of the theatricality of detail and expression.

Director of Photography, Kathy Ryan, approached Kander with Richard Avedon’s 1976 project for Rolling Stone Magazine, The Family, as a source of inspiration. The idea was to photograph Obama’s administration as it was being assembled, documenting and creatively capturing a political anatomy-in-progress. For the magazine, the commission provided the chance to spotlight characters that may well prove highly influential in the coming months and years. For the photographer, the project offered a singular opportunity to picture the embodied make-up of an entire political cabinet before his lens.

The timing of the sessions meant that the magazine would reach the newsstands two days before the inauguration. Obama’s cabinet had not yet been installed in their offices, and so were photographed against a plain background, allowing the complex interpersonal dynamics of portrait photography to take centre stage. Kander often approaches his individual subjects by confining them to a small space, and documenting the process as they begin to ‘out-perform’ their environment. He will talk very little, if at all, allowing what he calls ‘the economy of gesture’ to reveal itself. A taciturn relationship between photographer is formed, allowing the person stood before the lens to morph into a symbol of themselves.

Roland Barthes suggested that any time a subject steps in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, four people show up: the person the individual thinks s/he is, who s/he wants others to think s/he is, who the photographer thinks the subject is and who the photographer will make use of to bring about his art. Typically, Kander will have a few devices prepared for each subject prior to meeting them, and will develop or change his ideas upon meeting the sitter in person. By taking the subject out of their environment and placing them under high-tech lighting before a white background, the tensions between these various self-presentations is heightened. Sometimes the photographer will wait until it gets uncomfortable, revealing a sense of seductive unease that is evident in much of his work.

Digital technologies add an important dimension to this set of images. Shadows have been placed in post-production, along with muted fleshy background tones. The aim is not to dress the scene with imagined detail, but to reduce the composition, bringing the character of the individuals forward. Outside of the pages of magazines and websites, the photographs are presented as 60 x 50” prints, permitting the viewer a human-scale engagement with the images. "By omitting the context of time and place, the rendering of the smallest details are heightened" says Kander. A pen nib puncturing the cotton of a white shirt pocket, or the flashing light on a Blackberry, for example, becoming the quotidian units in Kander’s expertly measured visual economy.

One of the most original and highly regarded portraitists and landscape artist of our time, Kander brought a skilled and creative eye to this momentous project. His ability to traverse photographic boundaries and move freely and democratically between forms of dissemination has contributed to the universal appeal of his images. This project, alongside the extended essay on China’s Yangtze River, marks a point in Kander’s career where he has discovered a truly unique voice.