"There’s no history of a river greater than the Thames, from Roman times to the battles, to the ships sunk, to the trade, to the love, to the death, to the grit and toil that have happened on that river; from the great writings of Conrad or Dickens to paintings of Constable, it’s endless.” So says Israeli-born photographer Nadav Kander, of his latest exhibition entitled Dark Line — the Thames Estuary.
One of the most successful photographers of his generation, Kander’s work regularly appears publications like Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker. Over the years his projects have taken him everywhere from the desolate landscapes of Utah to photographing prostitutes in Cuba. In 2009, The New York Times Magazine commissioned him to shoot a portrait series of President-elect Barak Obama and his incoming administration. In late 2016 he made headlines for photographing Donald Trump for Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover.
“What are we doing? Let me show it to you, and can you please reflect if you care to?” These, says Kander, are the questions that drive him, irrespective of the subject matter. “It’s how the light falls, it’s how there’s a mystery in a picture, it’s how engaging a picture is that satisfies me”.
Another famous work is the Yangtze — The Long River series, which won the prestigious Prix Pictet in 2009. For this, he travelled along the banks of the great Chinese river, and produced a visual narrative of this ancient civilisation’s march toward modernity.
His latest work is more influenced by Chinese aesthetics than those documentary-like pictures of the Yangtze. The Thames prints, with their scroll-like hanging vertical forms, are redolent of Chinese Shan Shui scrolls, the ink and brush paintings of natural scenery that capture an “inner” landscape of feeling. In one photograph, Time (Cliffe Fort Towards Tillbury Power Station), the rotting wooden beams of an old boat even resemble Chinese characters from a distance. Other prints, such as the diptych Untitled III Part 1 & 2, are almost Rothko-esque in the way the dark green blur of the marshes fades slowly into the grey-white expanse of sky. So too is Water XI (Mucking Towards Stanford-Le-Hope), with its hues of yellow sky, golden reed beds, and illuminated and dark waters. Elsewhere, industrial settings like Kings North Power Station, and the faint outlines of giant cranes on the horizon, with their haunting beauty, recall Whistler’s Nocturnes paintings of the Thames. Constable’s Studies of clouds and skies, and paintings by abstract expressionists like Franz Kline and Barnett Neuman.
Other inspirations were literary and historical, notes Kander. “Where did Conrad write most of Heart of Darkness? Where did Dickens write? Where was there a great battle?”, the photographer would ask, before setting out on his meandering journeys of the estuary. “The silt of that river is rich in connections to the past and in connections to the human condition”.
He “looks for things that ask questions of our human condition: why we live the way we do, why our time on Earth is brief when it comes to the greater cosmos...”, putting this down to his “gypsy background”. His father, who recently passed away, fled Germany for Palestine in the 1930s, and the family of his South African mother, a poet who now lives in Indiana, was originally from Russia. His family moved to South Africa when Kander was three.
In the past he has spoken of an interest in “the aesthetics of destruction”, something that is apparent in photographic series like Chernobyl, Half-Life, or Dust, which captures former nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan. Such projects, Kander feels, are a result of growing up in apartheid era South Africa, “with angst and tension, and in a very aggressive society which I never knew I was living in”.
In a way, then, his work is almost anthropological, shaped by an attraction toward “the peripheries of civilisations, the peripheries of societies, that kind of edge of how societies perform and where they don’t perform well”.
So, a Israeli-born, South African, British Jew will show you the Thames as you have never seen it before.
Dark Line: the Thames Estuary is at the Flowers Gallery, Dalston until January 13