In an age when “everything is changing, everything is moving,” photographer Nadav Kander has sought to find moments of reserve, reverence and human vulnerability in his latest series, Bodies: 6 Women, 1 Man, opening this week at Flowers Gallery (Cork Street) in London, and published by Hatje Cantz later this month.
Kander told TIME in a recent interview that his work in Bodies — featuring white, smooth figures cast against a stark black background — serves, in part, as a visual homage to fine-art history. But the alabaster forms, naked and undefended, also communicate Kander’s underlying motivation as a photographer: to capture “the paradoxes of the human condition.”
“I don’t like to ignore that there is beauty without imperfection or that there’s health without disease,” Kander says. This interplay between the perfect and the flawed, the pure and the corrupt, suggests an elemental truth — a truth that is central to Kander’s aesthetic and method.
“The nudes,” he told TIME, “are another way of satisfying the quest that I’ve always [pursued] in my work.”
Originally from Israel, the 51-year-old Kander might be best known for his portraits, often uniquely framed and staged in dramatically lit environments. Subjects have ranged from President Barack Obama (for TIME’s 2012 Person of the Year issue) to professional athletes, politicians and Hollywood royalty.
But the range of Kander’s photography extends well beyond the intimate portrait: his documentary photography, for example, has merited awards — most notably Yangtze: The Long River, which won the Prix Pictet prize for photography and sustainability in 2009. With Bodies, however, he has returned to a theme that can sometimes feel archaic, as if abandoned by many in his field.
“In recent years, photographers have stayed away from the nude,” said Kander, noting that the process had become almost “nostalgic.” “I wanted to work with the nude in a new way.”
As if embracing the theme of paradox, Kander’s “new way” required peering into art’s distant past.
“The mixture of dust and cream [applied to the subjects] served as gentle reference to renaissance paintings,” he explained to TIME. Before long, and in spite of his evident reverence for his predecessors in both paint and pictures, his project evolved into a riveting amalgam: fine-art photographs that felt at once deeply familiar and utterly distinct from anything that might have come before.
“While the models are very present and there for your eyes, they are also turned away and quite private,” he said, noting details that contrast with most Renaissance art, which often made use of a Raphaelite “gaze” — that is to say, a portrait’s subject engaging the viewer with direct, and occasionally unsettling, eye contact.
While the bodies in his photos might well relay a vulnerability unseen in more traditional works, the positioning of the figures — the arch of their hands, the flexion of their feet and toes — communicates a Renaissance aesthetic further evident in his casting and choice of models.
“I was into the ideas of effigies, these white marble statues,” he said. To replicate that look Kander chose models without tattoos or piercings, bodies that were — in his words — “unencumbered by modernity.”
In his interview with TIME, Kander noted the influence Edward Weston, a renowned American photographer, has had on his work and approach to photography.
In 1932, Weston and 10 of the industry’s most notable names created the f/64 Group in San Francisco. The loose collective of photographers was staunchly committed to photography at its most accurate. In Weston’s words, “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”
For Kander, this same sensitivity meant little editing or post-production work on his own images — images that at-once mirror a specific reality and inform his personal life.
“I don’t want to make art that’s simple, ‘correct for the times,’ or merely to fit a gap in the market,” he said. “I make things that nourish me.”
Nadav Kander is a London-based photographer. Kander photographed President Barack Obama for TIME’s Person of the Year Issue in 2012.