Nadav Kander's Obama's People

January 19th, 2009

It’s been interesting reading the comments to aphotoeditor Rob Haggart’s posting of the “real behind the scenes” to Nadav Kander’s Obama’s People shoot and subsequent portfolio in the NY times Magazine, as well as other blogs. Lots of snarky comments criticizing the work, questioning the choice of Kander, the lighting style, and reeking of “I coulda, woulda done better”. I find it telling that the most vocal of these critics posted anonymously. For the most part an examination of the work of those few who did have the courage to post a link to their own work showed them to be artists of a lesser caliber and hardly with the credentials to take their comments seriously.

I found it curious how differently I responded to the printed version of the portfolio as opposed to the web slide show and it reaffirmed my belief that the web is an inferior medium for viewing photographs. Sorry it just is. I found I spent more time and looked at the images with a more curious and open mind, that I actually “looked” at them whereas on the web I “scrolled” through them much more quickly. On that note perhaps the web is an inferior format for serious criticism as well as most commenters seem to have blabbed out the first thing that popped into their heads rather than spending time with the work in question and looking at it in context.

Many people at APE criticized the lighting design, which is rather flat and shadowless and I have to admit I initially found it uninspiring as well. But as I spent more time with the images I began to believe a more shadowed richer light would intrude in allowing the viewer to simply see the person, which is I think the goal of this project. Avedon’s work was always more about Avedon and his own notions of the subject rather than the subject themsleves, something he never denied, whereas this project succeeds by letting the subjects tell their own stories without being burdened by the weight of technique. I suppose many might say the project fails for the same reason.

These images are of course being compared to Avedon’s landmark “The Family” portfolio in Rolling Stone from 1976, which was a purposeful source of inspiration for the Kander’s portfolio, as well as Jeff Reidel’s brilliant portfolio from the campaign in GQ earlier this year, and the blog’s critics offer no shortage of suggestions of other artists who should have been given the assignment. Why not Annie, Heisler or Greenfield-Sanders. Hell why not Terry Richardson for god’s sake. The decision who to hire rests solely with the editorial staff of the publication and to suggest they somehow made a mistake only opens oneself to the same criticism anytime your own work is published.

The suggestions that it should have been limited to an American photographer was most ludicrous in my mind and I was reminded of D.J. Stout’s statement he never hired artists by zip code. As if The Americans would have somehow been better had Robert Frank been born in Chicago?

Whether Kander’s portraits live up to Avedon’s is unfair as what could? But I find them to be a compelling, if perhaps flawed, portrait of a group of people on whose shoulders the weight of expectations, hope and desires of the entire world must carry. I can only hope these people receive a better range of consideration than have Kander’s photographs from aphotoeditor’s audience.