"Sulphurous Mud, Vulcano, Italy,"
"Diver, Salt Lake, Utah,"
color photograph, 1997.
Nadav Kander was born in Israel in 1961, grew up in South Africa and now resides in London. He has established a respected reputation as both a commercial photographer (advertising, fashion) and as an art photographer. The body of work on display here demonstrates why. This is a remarkably diverse collection of photographs, as varied in genres (portraits, still lifes, landscapes) as in subject matter (prostitutes, movie stars, cityscapes, desertscapes). Most of the prints were selected from a monograph titled Beauty's Nothing, which Kander abstracted from a poem by the mainstay of German spiritual transformation, Rainer Maria Rilke. The line appears in one of Rilke's famous and powerful Duino Elegies: "Beauty's Nothing/but the first touch of terror/we're just able to endure/and we adore it so much/because it serenely distains destroy us."
Part of what is so frightening about artistic beauty is that its creation requires varying degrees of detached, deliberate, even cold calculations. The art and act of photography, dependent by definition on a mechanical device, possesses the capacity to record whatever it points at in an indiscriminate and undifferentiated manner. Indeed, throughout this show, Kander's work invokes the metaphor of "shooting" a picture, or "capturing" any given subject matter. Images feel forcefully manipulated into aesthetic and psychologically charged tableaux. In this stance, the works purposely establish an antagonistic relationship between the subject(ive photographer) and his object(ivized) "targets."
For example, his pictures of seductively naked young Latina women, suggestive of prostitutes in what looks like downtrodden hotel rooms. seem at first straightforward enough. However, after viewing them for some time, the strength of these women's characters and the purity of their souls leap off of each print, turning their staged seductive stares into liminal indictments all their own. After all, she has been exploited twice: by the mechanical gaze of the photographer and his camera, and by a morally and economically bankrupt social environment that has brought her to sell her body in the first place.
For Kander, the very act and end product of photography is manipulative and ambiguous by nature. It is as if the artist creates a puzzle for himself in each of these pictures, whose meaning he and the viewer struggle together to discover and internalize. In this sense, Kander's stark and iridescently tinged urban landscapes, his series of gawky adolescents shot head on in bathing suits, his surreal, disembodied head shots of movie stars of a past era, even his cropped and extremely formal studies of women's nude torsos (some voluptuous and healthy and others decrepit and ill) all sound an unmistakably existential tone. In one particularly mysterious photo, a woman in a bathing suite and bathing cap stands on the edge of a diving board perched over a glassy, metallic and exquisitely surrealistic sea, extending to meet an equally impersonal and impenetrable grey sky. She has reached the edge of eternity, making it easy for viewers to empathize with what must be a blend of primal dread and exhilarating freedom. "Who am I?" she seems to ask nobody in particular. "And who is taking my photograph and who will look at it?. . .and what do I do next?" Salient questions, one and all.