Photo London – a dialogue with Nadav Kander and Sandy Nairn

I recently attended the dialogue between Nadav Kander and Sandy Nairn at Photo London and have been giving the themes raised some thought. The following will be more a personal meditation on my response to Nadav's work than a reporting of the event.

David Hockney once observed that it is often quite difficult to look at a photograph for a sustained period of time and that our eye will naturally move away from the photographic image by itself. This is due, Hockney claims, to the way the camera sees – stationary, cycloptic, blinking. Only a fraction of a second of looking takes place by the camera and because not much time goes in, not much time can come back out for the viewer. 

It was interesting to me then that one of the first subjects Nadav raised was his interest in pushing beyond this temporal constraint faced by photography.

Nadav's work frustrates the need to quickly understand an image and draws the viewer in to taking time to really look. Spending more time with an image opens the possibility for a deeper response in the viewer and for a discovery to be made. In the case of Nadav's work this discovery centres on the human condition.

As the artist Robert Irwin said "to see is to forget the name of the thing seen." In a practical sense this means that the more we can let go of our pre-conceptions the more we can engage in what for Irwin is the fundamental art act – being present. Irwin therefore saw his role as the artist to create a scenario in which the viewer would be encouraged or challenged to let go and simply be present. His work didn't reference anything outside of itself, and provided almost no information.

Likewise there are plenty of blank spaces in Nadav's work. Not blank in the sense of vacant, but blank in the sense of creating space for the unknown to exist without resolution. The large areas of blackness in some of Nadav's portraits are similar to the blackness of Richard Serra's densely black drawings - they are areas of visual weight. They pull us in, slow us down and create space for something new to emerge.

Looking at Nadav's work I sometimes feel submerged under water, pulled underneath the typical cerebral buzz that informs much of my day. This is both due to it's beauty, but also it's existential richness. Death, decay, vulnerability, power, flesh, movement, ignorance and revelation – all these are approached with an eye that refuses to avert it's gaze.

Running through the dialogue both Sandy and Nadav mentioned the role of psychological acuity in portraiture. It may be too much to expect a portrait photographer, who often spends a very short period of time with their sitters, to capture the quintessential being of the person in front of their lens. That doesn't however mean that something with psychological truth cannot be created, or that the photographer cannot respond to the sitter in an authentic and true manner.

Richard Avedon once said that the only thing the photographer has to work with is the surface, and that one cannot make a portrait of someone that is not true to the sitters experience. Nadav adds to this by saying that neither the photographer nor the viewer can create or connect with a portrait without first recognising their own experience in the other. Empathy is key.

This empathy is evident in Nadav's work, be it the vulnerability shown in his portrait of Prince Charles, David Beckham being obscured behind his tattoos, the somewhat fierce quality in his portrait of Dinos Chapman – none of these are seen as 'other' to our own experience. Life's memory can be seen in the sitters faces and they are responded to with affirmation.

These themes also run through Nadav's work with landscapes. As a face holds the memory of a person so the landscape holds memory. Nadav juxtaposes the impact of Man within the vastness of the natural world and the brevity of individual human life. The landscapes are also very quiet, bringing a stillness and a perspective somewhat outside of time.

Cartier-Bresson said that to make pictures is to put your head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Nadav's work does that, but also includes the guts of a situation. The guts know what the head, eye and heart don't quite – that we will die. The guts have their own voice, their own response, and they speak non-verbally. The guts find voice in Nadav's work and creates a similar response in the viewer.

As a portrait photographer I was listening to the dialogue with an open ear to pragmatic ways of strengthening my own work. In talking about making David Attenborough's portrait Nadav noted that David was grumpy as his hip was giving him pain. A quiet tone and a clear communication of intention to create a beautiful image is really felt by the sitter.

Something that has been strongly triggered for me since reflecting on the dialogue is the importance of drawing from multiple sources of inspiration for my own work. Commenting on his 'Colour Fields' work Nadav described being a child and looking under the ocean's surface with goggles on and seeing how it faded into black, and the fear that evoked. The influence of this on the Colour Fields is clear when described.

I had a few experiences of thinking I was going to drawn as a child and being afraid of swimming for years afterwards, including dreams of drowning. These dreams were certainly linked to my own unconscious and would sometimes contain gifts. This was repeated in my mid 20's when I fell over a large waterfall. This sense of water, the unknown, darkness, ignorance and the richness of the internal world is something I now plan to make space for in my own work. Without including these elements in an organic way I'm doing myself a disservice.

Lastly I was fortunate enough to be able to ask a question and asked what advice Nadav would give on cultivating a sensibility and craft towards making portraits. His response was that for him studying a lot of portraits deeply, including portraits outside of the photographic medium, was key to developing an internal dialogue. He suggested regarding the imagery we attend to as our food, as something that becomes part of us and bubbles up in our own work. This is something that's already starting to invigorate my own practice, and challenge me quite strongly.  

For more information please see: