Nadav Kander

Nadav Kander was born in Israel, grew up in South Africa and now lives and works in England. He has a wide body of work and appears to be best known for his documentary photographs and portraits.

I was interested to read that in his portraits, Kander takes a different approach to Rankin and doesn’t usually speak very much to his subjects. In a recent Telegraph interview he said that while other photographers want to show their model as relaxed and happy he would rather explore other aspects to their character and would rather that they weren’t too comfortable in front of the camera.

Boris Johnson, Nadav Kander

In the same article he talks about spending up to three hours getting the lighting just right and this really pays off as I think the lighting in his portraits is stunning. In this portrait he has clearly concentrated on highlighting Boris’ distinctive mop of hair.

I also like this idea of a composite of 15 shots, showing all sides of Boris.

Boris Johnson Composite Nadav Kander

For another publication Kander photographed Prince Charles. In the accompanying interview he says that his research is less about reading what is written about or by his subject and more about simply looking at images of them and thinking about how he would like to see that person.

He is looking for the moment when a picture becomes a portrait and he is not looking for the truth in a person.

Prince Charles, Nadav Kander

Kander’s project, Obama’s People marked President Obama’s inauguration and catalogued his administration at the time. About this Kander says that “by omitting the context of time and place from these photographs, the smallest details are heightened.”

Obama’s People, Nadav Kander

Kander has produced some haunting photographs for his Dust documentary. It is a project that captures images of secret Soviet cities and missile test sites on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia.

What strikes me about these images is that the colour tone is similar to much of his portrait work. He clearly knows what colours he likes, is drawn to a particular type of light and has developed a clear style.

It took Kander three years to photograph his Dust collection. Although the light is very subtle in these images I am not drawn to them because they are beautiful. I like the composition but it is also a bit disturbing and post apocolyptic to see the rust, decay and crumbling concrete.

The Aral Sea I (Officer’s Housing), Kazakhstan 2011

This is a short video of Kander  talking about his approach to photography and his Road to 2012 project that was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

I particularly like Kander’s comment that he always thinks more about the viewer than he does about the sitter.

Irving Penn

Irving Penn was an American photographer who first came to public notice following his work with Alexander Liberman, Art Director of Vogue magazine. Although many of the staff at the magazine didn’t rate Penn, Liberman supported him and he was encouraged to produce his first cover in 1943.

Penn’s first magazine cover for Vogue in 1943

Later, Penn founded his own studio and pursued a career in fashion, commercial and travel photography. He published several books and held several exhibitions but there are a few projects that I find particularly useful to my studies this year.

The Cranium Architecture project is a reminder of Vanitas. The hard studio lighting really highlights the shapes, cracks and pits in each skull and I think using the word architecture is clever as he is highlighting the construction of the skull very clearly. I can’t say that this is a subject matter that appeals to me but I can see that the images are masterfully created.

Cranium Architecture

Penn has also done a project called Small Trades where he produced full length images of people working in different trades, against a plain background. It is almost like a catalogue of different trades people of the era. As I look through, I am struck by how many of the trades are no longer around yet the people depicted are probably just one of several generations that have all been doing the same thing.

I found that looking at these pictures was quite useful in terms of finding the ‘truth‘ in a portrait. Although I don’t believe it is possible to capture the whole truth of a person in an image, these images certainly capture what the person does if not who they are.

Small Trades

Finally Penn’s Cigarette’s project is also notable. The cigarette butts are photographed simply and clearly and leave the viewer wondering what type of person would have smoked them.


This video gives a short overview of some of Irving Penn’s work.


Rankin talks about finding the ‘essence of a person’ or the ‘honesty’ in a portrait which fits in very well with out Truth Assignment. In our studio session this week we were given a piece of paper with an emotion written on it and asked to photograph one of our class mates portraying that emotion.

I was given the emotion ‘unnerved’ and asked to photograph Erin. Initially she hid behind the chair but after that I tried to pose her in a way that suggested that she had seen something (perhaps a spider on the wall) that had unnerved her. I wanted to see big eyes looking off camera and her mouth slightly open. Unnerved is quite a subtle emotion but I think we managed to capture it quite early on.

Then I remembered that Rankin uses hands, arms, hair and clothes as props in a lot of his portraits. So I asked Erin to put her hands to her face like the painting ‘The Scream’ but rather than looking unnerved I thought she looked more like she was laughing at something.

I asked her to put her hands on her head, open her eyes widely and take a sharp intake of breath. I took several shots like this, some more closely cropped but this is the one I like best. Through the fear that she is portraying, there is still a lively glint in Erin’s eye.

While I had Erin in front of the camera we talked about other things and I took the fifth image while she was looking at a friend. That is the image, with a shy smile, that shows the side of Erin’s character that I am most familiar with.

I was a little shy about doing the shoot with my classmates and tutor watching on but it really helped to keep talking with Erin while she was being photographed. It helped us try different poses and together work out the best shots. I hope too that it helped her to feel more relaxed and more confident too.

The environment of the college studio is probably more familiar to Erin than it is to me but if I was taking photos of someone who was unfamiliar with the lights and set up I would need to spend some time explaining what was happening in order to put them at their ease.

It is a good practice to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve before going into the studio and I took this image of Amanda Seyfried as Red Riding Hood as initial inspiration for an unnerved look.



I think it is telling that the first line of Rankin’s biography on his website states that he ‘unveils icons’. In his portraits he aims to reveal the character of a person, most notably through their eyes.

Bill Nighy

Rankin has photographed many famous people including royalty, film stars, musicians and athletes but his Rankin Live project, saw him photographing nearly 1500 members of the public too. He really does have a knack for getting to the heart of the person and drawing something out of them that perhaps even they didn’t know they had. Rankin calls it ‘Finding the essence of a person’.

It’s quite difficult to define Rankin’s style. He says that he doesn’t have a style and that he uses different lighting and techniques every time. It is the ‘honesty’ in the image that he looks for above any style.

Rankin says that talks continuously to the person he is photographing, looking for their reaction to what he is saying. He aims to build a rapport and make a connection with his sitter that he can share through the lens and if he can make someone feel good when they are having their photograph taken it will be easier to make them look good. They have to trust the person that is taking their photograph and trust that they won’t make them look ridiculous.

This video shows Rankin working with some teenagers, each one is to have their portrait taken as part of the project but some are a little nervous about it. he allows each to have their hair and make-up done before they get in front of the camera to make them feel beautiful. One girl that he is working with is clearly not relaxed enough so he switches their roles and has her take his photo. After a little while, when she is more comfortable, he switches the roles back and he gets the shot that he wants. With all of the young people he focuses on their eyes, asking them to smile with their eyes more or give a cheeky look with their eyes.