Arriving in London from South Africa at age 21, the leading British artist recalls the hard early steps finding work in photography
“Take a look at this,” Nadav Kander says. He fetches a hardback from the shelves that line his studio. He hands it over with a half smile. The book’s dust jacket is white. On its cover, in large typeset font, reads: NADAV KANDER’S BOOK OF JOKES. I open the book. The pages are blank, white, entirely empty.
The British artist, who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, remembers the wits that gifted it to him: “Two northern blokes who were a lot of fun – and I mean a lot of fun.” They worked as art directors, and decided to take young, fresh off the boat Kander under their wing. Kander is speaking ahead of his involvement with the international photography and creative industry publisher Le Book custom-made tradeshow Connections by LE BOOK, a meeting place designed for the creative community, and which has recently migrated to the online space with the launch of Connections Digital.
The photographer arrived in London in 1983, at age 21, three months out of the South African Air Force. The South Africa he left was still under apartheid. “I don’t think I could really see it clearly. Now it’s unthinkable. I don’t think I was accepting of it. But I was much too accepting of it. But I’d had enough of South Africa. I knew that I wanted to leave.”
He took “the cheapest flight I could find,” which happened to be Luxembourg, a coach through Europe, a ferry across the channel and then another long coach into the capital. On arrival, Kander had one vague contact who helped him with a basement room in a hotel in Kilburn. “It was done on a prayer,” he says of the long, meandering journey. “But I was driven by this need to prove myself – that’s been a great friend to me throughout my career.”
The ambition to work in photography burned. “But you had to assist,” he recalls. “But there were only about 30 proficient professional photographers in London at that time.”
Each day, he walked through central London, knocking on the doors of photographer’s studios, or calling from red phone boxes. “You’d pray they’d answer and not their assistants. You’d ask if you could come in and assist them. Most of them would say ‘no’.” His love of books led him to the basement shop of The Photographer’s Gallery, as well as other bookshops around Soho and Shoreditch, such as Claire De Rouen Books. “They were my haven when I first arrived here and had to walk around looking for work,” he says. “I would be in book shops almost every day because I didn’t know anybody.” Kander eventually began to secure assisting jobs. “I was good and I was loyal. But I was just so shy,” he recalls. “I persevered. But I wasn’t happy doing it.” After meeting an agent by chance, he decided to go solo; the agent had an unused studio after a former client developed a bad drinking problem.
From there through to today, Kander grew, step by step, to become one of the most respected photographers working. He has captured the portraits of the likes of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, David Lynch and Thom Yorke. He is a commercial photographer successful enough to be able to step away from the fold and embark on great exploratory journeys, resulting in personal series like Yangtze, The Long River, his years-long study of China’s main artery of water, which won Kander the Prix Pictet in 2009.
But, even today, after three decades in the game, Kander is still beset by nerves before a commercial shoot, despite his skills. “I don’t love the process,” he says of his portrait work. “I’m still having to prove myself – to create something I won’t regret, that I can feel pride in. That effort and tension isn’t pleasant. Until the shoot is going well, it’s not that enjoyable. It’s not that I hang out with anyone I photograph. If I did, the photographs wouldn’t be good.”
Even on commission – and Kander has worked for clients as diverse as The New York Times, Nike, Sky and Comme des Garçons – the photographer has learnt to allow the studio to become consumed singularly “by the atmosphere of the person, and the atmosphere I bring myself.”
Kander admits to failing many times throughout his career. He has plenty of images he doesn’t now show, and looks back on some of his commercial shoots with some dismay. He doesn’t feel he had much of a lexicon through which he could talk about his work “until probably into my 40s.”
Kander has never worked for an agency. He has always been independent, represented by galleries in New York, London and Shanghai, and by a pool of trusted agents. Most of the portraiture Kander has taken over his career, and which have made him revered, have “come about by circumstance.”
“When I speak to students, that’s always my message: you’ll never be great until it comes from yourself. There’s a thread that runs through everything that is inherent to you. How you are when you are yourself – if your work can come from that place, it will hang together.”
“I haven’t actually instigated that many,” he says. “Because they’re quite hard to do. I love having [the portraits] now, but they’re difficult. I think it’s about my relationship with myself – but that’s the most important thing for anyone.”
This, Kander says, is what he most wants to impart to those hoping to follow in his wake. “When I speak to students, that’s always my message: you’ll never be great until it comes from yourself,” he says. “There’s a thread that runs through everything that is inherent to you. How you are when you are yourself – if your work can come from that place, it will hang together.”
I leave after Kander shows me his most recent series. Titled Solitude – Quietude – Contemplation, it was made in the studio during the first lockdown. With intense detail, plastic figurines of the kind Kander remembers playing with as a child are situated in dialogue with each other – creating imagery, hermetic worlds, similar to the ones Kander created as a child in the heat of Johannesburg. At first glance, the compositions seem pensive, isolated, anxiety-wrought. But, as I step from the quiet of Kander’s studio and into the light and bustle of Kentish Town’s high street, I realise the figurines are about something different – of persevering, of meeting, and of hope.