Saturday, 5 September 2009

Review: Obama's People by Nadav Kander at Birmingham

Eugene Kang by Nadav Kander, courtesy of

I must confess I had always had a certain, completely unfounded, prejudice against Birmingham. It lacked the centrality and culture of London; the hip style of Manchester; the artistic excitement of Glasgow; the architecture of Edinburgh. Although years ago I had been assured that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice, and I was willing to believe it to be true, the comparison seemed almost obscene. My acquaintanceship with the city, limited heretofore to inevitable forays at the Digbeth Street Coach Station, had hardly provided me with any basis for analysis. So having occasion to purchase a day return to Brum to escort my father partway on his return to Gatwick, I found myself with the prospect of spending at least two hours in the city while waiting for the return train. It seemed churlish not to go for a walk.

The central rail station seems to automatically spit you out onto a walkway that goes past McDonald's (free, clean toilets! unlike the station, which charges 20p to spend a penny), and there, ahead of you just to the left, is a funky little glass building that hands out free maps and other tourist info. Turn left here and an easy walk past a couple blocks of pedestrianised shopping (including Habitat on your left) brings you to an open square with a sort of concrete amphitheatre that is a pleasant place to people watch on a hot summer's day, while munching a sandwich. A classically columned portico announces some sort of municipal government offices; around the corner from this is the city museum and art gallery. On the way I encountered a giant poster advertising an exhibition called 'Obama's People', featuring the photographs of Nadav Kander, normally a fashion rather than portrait photographer.

And the portraits did certainly echo shots for the cover of Vogue, a plain white background and ring flash giving a very even brightness to the subjects, who were nonetheless rendered in rich saturation and detail, so important when photographing people of a range of races and skin tones. (One of my pet peeves has always been that the emulsions and standard developing settings of films, especially colour films like Kodak but more dramatically perhaps in black and white, have traditionally been set to flatter the skin tones of Caucasians, leaving Afro-Carribeans, South Asians, etc. unflatteringly underexposed, and thus almost invisible in group portraits.)

But Kander's work renders the skin tones beautifully, and is about group portraiture only in its totality: what he has done is to record the members of Obama's cabinet and staff, as they were known at the time of his inauguration in January 2009. Each portrait confronts the viewer with a single member of staff; it is apparent immediately the range of age, gender and ethnic diversity that characterise the support team chosen by America's first black president. In addition, although the forty-odd less central people are presented in rows of head and shoulder shots, 16"x20" approximately, the twenty-five or so key advisors are presented in fabulous head-to-toe nearly life size enlargements, or in some cases, in larger-than-life waist shots. This is the case with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who is presented in a pose reminiscent of portraits in oils, with the exception of the animation of her mouth, in mid-speech. Facial lines and age spots, that are considered 'characterful' in men, but are airbrushed and botoxed away in women, are allowed to remain, giving her dignity and authority - after all, it is hard to forget that she also had a very real chance of becoming president, despite remarks about her weight and appearance that would never have been an issue with a male candidate of similar age and stature.

With many of the other portraits, too, the interest is more in the analysis of who is represented, and how, rather than in the technicalities of the production. Kander claims to have allowed the subjects to dress as they wished, and to bring their own props, if desired: these ranged from pencils to a basketball to chocolate chip cookies. In the absence of any setting, the clothes, props, and particularly the postures, gestures, and facial expressions define the characters of these people. Reggie Love, Personal Aide to the President, featured on the promotional materials, upon closer inspection reveals his name stitched into the lining of his tailored jacket, and even the cuffs of his shirt. Ostentatious, or relaxed, confident and proud? The much-discussed Eugene Kang could not form a more complete contrast: retiring behind the little black book of contact numbers that helps him to be Obama's living personal organiser, only 24, this former student politician sports a collegiate wool scarf that, while slightly eccentric, is as self-effacing worn over a dark coat as Love's peacock-blue satin shirt is eye-catching and extrovert.

As a total exhibition, it makes manifest, in a purely visual and immediate way, the revolution of inclusiveness at the highest level of government that Obama has instigated before his first day in the Oval Office. And yet, clearly some of the old guard remain, and continuity is not necessarily a bad thing. Particularly striking is Mark W. Lippert, National Security Council Chief of Staff, whose deep shadows under the eyes and premature aged looks at 35 speak perhaps of the burden of intolerable knowledge.

Obama himself is presented differently. Secreted in a sort of shrine, facing night time portraits of the Capitol buildings, his print is the smallest of all, a mere 12 by 14 inches (approximately, as I remember). It is black and white, with a large predominance of grey tones, and is lit by a single miniscule bulb. From the night of the dark enclosure, he seems to look up to the dawn he hopes for his country and the world.

AS I WRITE IT, THAT IS SO CLICHE! But in the exhibition, it didn't seem so.

The remainder of the museum and gallery took a while to explore. Of particular interest, and relevant as both contrast and parallel, is the room devoted to Olaudah Equiano. The story of his life, from beginnings as a slave to free man, writer and thinker, is an inspiring antecedent to Obama's. And both have published influential books: Equiano's is titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) and helped to forward the anti-slavery campaign.

Please vote for me to become the official blogger / artist for an expedition to the North Pole!

1 comment:

sohil said...

I happened to land on your blog through your tweet on nadav kander but i dont think i was able to read more then a few sentences.

While i'm glad youre taking the time to write about topics you like, your facts are too off to not comment.

Like labeling Kander as a FASHION photographer? (you really should go have a look on this site) and saying the portraits echo vogue magazine cover is so off the mark.
Though it may be easy to confuse this, there was no ringflash used in the shoot. (the drop shadows are fake and added in post). Which leads to the film comment cos the shoot was all digital.

Dont mean to pick on you but doing a fact check would help you a great deal and make you more credible and worth reading.