The poet William Stafford once penned an ode to the intuitive path, characterizing it as an invisible thread we each possess that slowly brings us forward, in a poem called The Way It Is: “There’s a thread you follow,” he wrote. “It goes among / things that change. But it doesn’t change. / People wonder about what you are pursuing. / You have to explain about the thread. / But it is hard for others to see.”
When the artist and photographer Nadav Kander read Stafford’s poem, something clicked. “I loved coming across the poem because I’ve often felt that way when I’m in the flow,” says Kander. “I almost envision a thread in my lap and I’m in connection to it; I can hold it. And the more I’m in the flow, and the more work that I add, that’s when I’m adding fibers to the thread. That’s when you, like the thread, get stronger and stronger as you know yourself more.”
“And there’s a certain feeling when you flow,” he continues. “I can only describe it as when your ego and your history isn’t present—that’s when you’re so in the moment for such a meditative process at that point. And you don’t have this outside eye criticizing you.”
Kander weaves his photographs together, from past and present, in a new exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery titled “Nadav Kander: The Thread” spanning work from the 1990s to the 2020s. Inside the exhibition is a collection of Kander’s portraiture and landscapes, two seemingly disparate forms that somehow meld together seamlessly.
Kander freely cites Stafford’s poem as having been a great inspiration to the formation of the exhibition, but he is reticent to over-explain the work within. “What I love in other people’s work is when it asks me to go within myself for the answers, when the answers are not given in the photograph,” he says. “So much photography really does give everything. It hands over the whole present to you once you’ve unwrapped it; it’s all there to be seen. And that’s not what makes me tick at all.”
One of the most mesmerizing images in the exhibition is Atlantic Ocean III (Copacabana Beach), a photograph of the ocean under an inky black sky. The waves move so quickly that they’re transformed into striations of white, blue, and grey, with only the white of the foam to illuminate the otherwise dark scene. There’s a sublime balance between the frenetic energy of the water, and the stillness of the sky; between the depth of the dark sky and the white of the cresting waves. It’s this dynamic quality that weaves through Kander’s work, whether in portraits or landscapes.
“I really do strongly feel it that my landscapes are portraits because they never are about beautiful flowers in a meadow. They are always about humans,” Kander says, citing his series capturing the Thames Estuary as an example. “It’s just a flat area with a couple of towns on them. It’s not terribly interesting, but when you think of the history of the river, there’s no other river in the world that has a history like it. And not only the writers and painters from Conrad to Dickens and Constable and Whistler have portrayed it; it’s not just that, it’s also the trade that came up the Thames. It was the trade hub of Europe for 400 years. So there’s a real humanness in the landscape.”
Several large-scale triptychs feature within the show; Kander experimented with ways to mount them like traditional altarpieces, with hinges that allow the panels to be opened and closed. But the engineering proved to be an issue, with the weight of the works—so for now, they are mounted together as three parts of a whole.
One such triptych shows flocks of birds in a loose formation in the air, a smattering of bright blue shapes, like flecks of paint, against a grey English sky. Another triptych is a seascape, with the rolling waves of the Thames crashing together, and softening in the distance as they fade into the hazy horizon line. At first glance, the triptychs might seem to be the same image split into three sections, but Kander, wanting to be true to the form, created each image separately, shot just moments apart. “I like the inference of it being quite filmic, almost like there’s movement between them,” says Kander.
Aside from the land and seascapes, traditional portraiture constitutes a large part of Kander’s oeuvre, and they feature prominently within the exhibit. Though there are familiar faces within Kander’s portraits—Rosamund Pike, Barack Obama, David Lynch—Kander presents them in novel and unusual forms. In one such portrait, Pike, gazing stoically past the camera, has the branches of a tree projected across her bare face and chest, as if her skin has become translucent, revealing branches of veins underneath.
“I’m certainly interested in the edge of things,” Kander says. “I’m interested in what isn’t quite normal. I can’t stand the mainstream. It’s something I stay away from pictorially, photographically. If what I’m pointing my camera towards feels mainstream, well-trodden, pretty—all of those things are horrific for me.”
“Nadav Kander: The Thread”, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, until June 17.