Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

Nadav Kander’s latest landscape series “Dust” is exhibited at Flowers, Kingsland Road, London until 11 October 2014.

Nadav Kander, Dust.  Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander, Dust.
Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

All photographers make an aesthetic decision when they choose a viewpoint and frame a photo, but aetheticisation goes beyond this to making “pleasingly beautiful” or “idealised”1 landscapes. It’s a sliding scale, with photographers like Daido Moriami and his snapshot approach at one end to the over-saturated pointless sunset at the other. In between there are professionals and amateurs emulating masters of the past, copying masters of the present or genuinely exploring and pushing forward photographic landscape aesthetic.

Artists making a living by landscape photography are restricted by their market; they tend to photograph in a way that will sell. This frequently results in the commodification of a mythic landscape using lowest-common-denominator aesthetics. So as a professional artist/photographer Nadav Kander has a difficult path to tread with “Dust”. In this work he chooses to document a “dirty” landscape – radioactive ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia where atomic bombs and missiles were tested – in his characteristic quiet light reminiscent of the Dusseldorf School (Gursky, Ruff, Struth et. al.). Sometimes he chooses a camera position that only shows one side of a building, giving a static 2-dimensional impression but more commonly he shows us 2 sides, giving perspective, a little more dynamism and a greater sense of reality. He gets in there and shows us individual buildings or at least what’s left of them after an atomic blast or quake.  Thankfully there are no aerial photographs, which I find too distant and abstracting to get me involved. Kander’s landscapes are under-stated, controlled and consistent but not so consistent that they become boringly repetitive. They engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally without bludgeoning them with a message. Given the subject, I find his images err on the too-comfortable aesthetic side, but like all good art the work poses questions rather than provides answers so I can forgive his tendency to over-aestheticise. Having said that, he stays safely within his own photographic aesthetic to great effect: the viewer can almost hear the Geiger counter clicking away in the background. If you like Kander’s previous work you should be impressed with this new one. If you don’t know his work I highly recommend seeing Dust.

There’s an interesting interview with Nadav Kander on Vimeo and there’s a (slightly expensive) book. If you can’t get to the exhibition, do check out the book.



2 responses to “Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

  1. just a question here – you put forward aestheticisation as a negative attribute. Can you explain why this is so? I think the far end of the sliding scale should probably be someone like Peter Dombrovskis, Olaf Otto Becker, Richard Misrach, Simon Norfolk or Edward Burtynsky.

    ““Beauty is thing is just a vehicle.. By making the pictures very beautiful you are almost tricked into coming inside that photograph’s space for a while; engaging with it and being in a conversation with the photograph .. and then, by surprise, you might find that you’ve listened to a whole load of my arguments which you probably wouldn’t have listened to if I hadn’t seduced you into that space, into that dialogue. So beauty has always been a tactical thing for me. If I thought I could get across the points I want to make without beauty then I would dump beauty tomorrow.” – Simon Norfolk

    Beauty, Aesthetics, The Sublime – they are all visual tools and you can choose to use them or not. But to suggest that a tool is useless denies a whole swathe of art history (and hopefully art future once we get past the critics knee jerk dismissal of beauty and composition).

    • Tim,

      In choosing a viewpoint and framing an image we all make aesthetic decisions so in that sense we all astheticise a landscape but I’m using the term to mean something beyond this. Perhaps I should have used the term “over-aestheticise” or even “over-beautify”, but yes, I do mean aestheticisation (or over-aestheticisation) in a negative sense. Beautifying something that is at its core ugly seems to me to be a falsehood, artistically dishonest, and even intellectually corrupt depending on the motives of the photographer.

      To take two examples from your list: my favorite book by Simon Norfolk is “For Most of it I Have No Words” in which he documents the aftermath of 8 genocides from the last 100 years. He photographs in black & white using what I think of as a modernist aesthetic. I find these images quietly moving and an insightful reminder of man’s inhumanity to man; they are not shouting at me, they are saying “here’s the evidence that remains”. His more recent work “Scenes from a Liberated Baghdad” has some images (not all) that stray over my personal aestheticisation line: they beautify something that is at its core, ugly. Looking at the offending images I think it is the use of colour and light in an inappropriate way that leads to this pictorial dishonesty. I also realise that this impression is compounded by the media who frequently only use these aesthetisised images in their reviews and publicity, thereby giving a skewed version of Norfolk’s work.

      Ed Burtynsky is another photographer whose work I admire and I have several of his books on my shelf. He is judgmental to the extent of selecting his subjects and viewpoints to support an environmentalist ethic without being extreme in his message. Until recently he has taken a ground-level viewpoint (unless forced into the air by practicalities) though his camera position is often higher than normal eye level. However I balked at his most recent work “Water”, and the reason? Because they are aerial photos that turn real and under-regarded issues into abstract patterns, which for me is a step too far in the aesthetisation of the landscape. It is as if he is artistically ducking the issues in favour of populist appeal, so this book hasn’t made it onto my shelf!

      So I agree that beauty, aesthetics, the Sublime are visual tools (and, I must add, cultural norms) to use or not. Where I disagree is their dismissal being any sort of knee-jerk reaction, at least on my part. What I’m looking for is a reasonable level of honest and integrity in landscape photography. If the photographer’s message is “look, the aftermath of war can be beautiful” or “isn’t this untreated toxic waste wonderful?” then go ahead and aesthetise the landscape, but you can expect me to at least question the approach. My criteria, my line-in-the-sand, might be different to other peoples’ but I still think it’s important to question whether a photograph (over-)aesthetises its subject.

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