Nadav Kander And The NY Times Magazine- The Real Behind The Scenes

- - Photoshoot

The New York Times Magazine commissioned Nadav Kander to photograph “Obama’s People” — 52 full-page color portraits of the vice president-elect and the incoming president’s advisers, aides and cabinet secretaries-designate, along with those legislators who are likely to prove influential in helping to usher into law what the new administration sets out to do. You can see the pictures (here). They also marked this historic occasion–the gravitas of which can only be fully understood by reading the editors letter (here)–with behind the scenes pictures of the shoot (here). I thought you might like to see the real, real behind, behind the scenes so I added in the missing dialogue and thought bubbles.

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There Are 113 Comments On This Article.

  1. Hilarious commentary in the thought bubbles Rob! Love it.

    You look at this BTS and it continues to make me wonder how a photographer defines the value he/she adds to a shoot. (All respect due to N Kander.) What did he do here that a strip mall yearbook photog couldn’t do – other than get in the room.

    Technically, anyone can throw up a beauty dish, two shoot thrus, meter it, and blast away. Rent an H3, G5 and digital tech to go with it and Photoshop what? Anyone can press the shutter.

    I’m not trying to be a dick; but as I try to grow and define my work, I look at a shoot like this and wonder why did they pick this guy? What does he bring to the table? Or somelike like Tim “one light” Greenfield Sanders or even some of the criticism of Annie’s signature style.

    Is their value ultimately access? And did really unique photographic vision get them there? Or was it right place, right time, right look?

    I am trying to further ‘define’ my style and make it easy for PE to ‘label’ me. (You emphasized at last year’s PhotoShelter seminar…if an PE can’t say, “oh yeah, he’s the guy that does those high key portraits,” then it’s tough to stay on their minds.

    Maybe that answers the question on Kander – he shoots that simple flat light on a white sweep – with the PS drop shadow added…cool.

    The crash yesterday in the Hudson epitomizes the citizen journalist (a point you’ve been making); more realtime images came from Joe Plumber than the AP. Digital is so accessible – how does a ‘pro’ justify their creative fee? Ultimately, I believe one of the blog articles at NatGeo that you linked, “The Pro Advantage,” where an editor knows that a person can deliver great images under the most challenging circumstances – something that allows the PE to sleep at night.

    Anyway, always interesting to see the behind the scenes of something like this. I guess when you’re shooting 50+ very very busy people, futzing with lighting between shots does not cut it.

    I don’t think Nadav is going to lose sleep over his secret lighting formula being revealed to the world.

    • @Michael Seto,
      I would look at a photographers book to see why they are hired but look to the editor, photo editor and art director as to why a shoot turned out the way it did.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        Of course you’re totally spot on with that comment. His stuff is fantastic and I’m a big fan. As you said, it’s the editorial staff that shapes the look they want; and, of course, the NYT Magazine folks are not slouches by any stretch.

        I just wonder how much value Nadav can add to each portrait in what was probably a couple days of frenetic work – with (I’d venture) just a few minutes to shoot each person. Obviously, being able to elicit some type of emotion/personality from each subject that feels true is probably one of the things a portrait photog brings to a shoot with these constraits…just look at Avedon.

        Anyway, interesting piece on several levels.

    • @Michael Seto,
      The most important people to impress with your work are not the PE, AD or editor, it is the public who will view it.

      The artistic world arrogantly praises various photographers for various reasons. Truth told, many hobbyists, no pun intended, on strobist can outshoot a lot of these praised professionals.

      The only real important question is ‘how does my public view my work?’

        • @A Photo Editor,
          I don’t have an opinion on the failure of JPEG, but I have read opinions that it failed more because of its inner bickering than its product.

          The alternative isn’t any better; so-called artistic experts who praise mediocre work that the public believes is not impressive at all.

          I’m a firm believer that the future is no longer in a printed product but electronic publication. Through trials and failures, somebody will eventually find a successful approach.

          just my opinion.

    • @Michael Seto,
      I’ve photographed several of the same people. Take my anonymous word for it..Kander nailed the shoot.

      • DAniel Plainview

        @Anon,

        Having photographed more than a few high profile / high power politicians over the past few years ( none of these people however) , I have to agree. The more I look at the photos Kandar shot, the better sense I get of the subjects personalities. The people whining about the unremarkable lighting style and other tech details just miss it.

        • @DAniel Plainview, and @Anon,

          Thanks for the input. I’m sure the AD, PE, Editor did not think the same thing, these photos would not have ran.

          I guess when I see some BTS like this…which of course is just a narrow slice of everything that went on to setup/execute the shot…I wish the BTS gave a better sense of what Nadav is doing moment to moment to nail the shoot as you’ve said.

          What is his value? It’s not the lighting setup – so it must be something where he can elicit the right look from the subject and capture that moment.

          I’d love to hear some people’s thoughts on what it is about an accomplished photographer like Nadav brings to the ‘decisive moment’ on a shoot like this.

    • @Michael Seto,

      Ok Michael Seto,

      its clear whats happening here.

      Nadav Kander wasn’t at the right place, at the right time, with the right look.

      As a photo editor with an NYT magazine staff arsenal its up to Kathy Ryan to create the “right place, right time” scenario. It’s not like Nadav was plucked off the street. His simple lighting is exactly what was needed to replicate Avdeon’s Regan Administration shoot. I bet if he had 4+ lights, you internet cynics would be up in arms about over compensation.

      If i were Kathy Ryan, and I needed to photograph the 50+ most important people in America right now, I would be wise enough to understand that a photographer isn’t simply an over-paid button presser.

      Nadav’s team has to be able to calmly and quickly troubleshoot and fix any problems that may come up while shooting (electrical issues, Profoto light failures, Camera issues, Computer crashes).

      Michael, do you really think that a Phase one P45+ digital back (priced at $30,000 and up) a Hassleblad camera, appropriate lenses, MacPro computers with the applicable software (not G5, because PPC systems are older than Joe Biden)in addition to back-up equipment and having a trained technician who has the fix whatever issues occur within seconds because of extreme time-constraints, can all be considered accessible resources?

      Yes “technically” anyone can do anything, but in reality, if you want to commission a daunting photo essay like this you need to hire people who have done this before and understand the process and intricacies of a professional photo shoot.

      You obviously don’t understand a thing about magazine deadlines or image file delivery and security.

      Seriously, you’re the guy at the Modern Museum of Art and says uneducated shit like “anyone can do that!”

      yes Michael, anyone can ‘technically’ do anything , but please don’t be that resentful aging photo-nerd that refuses to acknowledge real talent.

    • @Michael Seto, Of course access is part of the value. Just look at Candida Hoffer.

      We might think of photography competitive advantages as:

      1. Access (this includes relationships)
      2. Technical know-how
      3. Creativity
      4. Money (think traveling somewhere to shoot or being able to rent a helicopter or even afford that 40k camera)

      Any others people want to add?

      Of course, Nadav was chosen, I imagine based largely on his past work and demonstrated ability.

  2. Your interpretation of the BTS is right on the money . Unfortunately the actual story is frighteningly boring, and the commentary on the slide show is pretentious. Granted, the subject matter is inherently bland, but the isolation on white just seemed to make matters worse. Normally I love Kander and the Times’s work but no one is perfect I guess. I much prefer the behind the scenes commentary!

  3. peter Taylor

    that is some funny stuff. Did your coffee taste funny this morning? and what is with all those serious comments? Can’t a brotha just have a little fun?

    pt

  4. itsgoodtobmikeb

    :)

    nice…very funny..you could almost interpret your additions as taking the piss out of the kanye blog.

    thanks for the additional insight and links ( like always )

    have a good weekend.

    m.

  5. funny APE. we need more laughs in this business, thanks.

    typo: “YEAH US” should be “YEA US.”

  6. Nadav is one of my photo gods, however these are some dull dull portraits. I would have liked to have been at the meeting where they said let’s hire this really great shooter and have them do something really dull. I understand that there wasn’t much time to shoot and they had to be consistant but I’m sure we have all been in the same spot just with less famous people. I bet these images will get in the ca photo book and other books because who shot them and who the subjects are not because of what they look like.

  7. Nice. I like the shots, the simplicity and the fact that the subjects seem rushed matches the current mood. Involved lighting would just get in the way.

  8. Right on brotha. I saw these yesterday and was wondering how much coke was done between the AD and Nadav ’cause this shots really sucked. Looks like something I’d see on the Paul Buff forum.

  9. If someone showed me these pictures and didn’t tell me who made them I wouldn’t be thinking “high-end, well-known international advertising photographer”. Kathy Ryan, of all people, knows(or should) that there are hundreds of photographers available to her who could have shot this. Thousands if you count the all people doing school portraits. Hiring a big name states to everyone that this is IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHY. And it makes her and the magazine look good. Even if the result might be nothing special. And I’d bet Nadav would have preferred to be there alone, just getting on with shooting, rather than having the whole tethered thing going on. I mean, how much direction do you need to give Nadav? But that’s another discussion. There’s nothing really wrong with the images. They’re just not as special as we might wish, and they certainly don’t correspond to the breathless commentary that goes along with the slide show on the NYT website. Nevertheless, they’re almost certain to end up in the CA or PDN awards annuals. They were, after all, published in the New York Times Magazine, taken by one of the world’s top photographers who was directed by one of the world’s most prominent picture editors.

  10. very funny, Rob – thanks for sharing

    By my oh my what a wasted opportunity that shoot was. Dullsville lighting, boring poses, with predictably tedious results.

    I flicked through the slideshow this morning and kept clicking and clicking, faster and faster, hoping there would be a flash of inspiration in there to make it all worthwhile, but no. Normally I am impressed by Kander’s work but this is poor by anyone’s standards.

    Love your blog BTW- keep up the good work

  11. Agreed on the dullsville photos. These images have all the appeal of figures in a wax museum. Oh well. I guess it’s those teeny weeny magazine budgets. Very well designed, but they give me the feeling of well lit morgue.

    Thanks again for the interesting insight. Always love the blog.

  12. I saw these, and I do admire Nadav Kanders work, except I think Annie Leibovitz would have brought something more out of her subjects. I agree with the poster that says, these are dull, and yes they will get into the annuals not because of the photography, but because of who the subjects are. I think I can give you a long list of photographers who would have connected better with their subject. I think Nadav Kander made no connection with his subjects, maybe he didn’t have the time? I also think they added the commentary to make it all sound more glamorous! Photos should speak for themselves, it’s seems they are trying to add a sales job onto them!

  13. Wow, I looked at this feature when it first came out and totally glossed over it. I guess my ambivalence should have been an indicator of how bad it was, but you really hit the nail on the head. Gearald Marzorati’s explanation (more like defense) of the project is atrocious. To compare this to Avedon’s portraits makes me a bit sickly.

  14. @ 26, Mr. Marzorati said: “… The Times Magazine asked Nadav Kander — one of the more original and highly regarded portraitists at work just now — if he would like to photograph the administration of Barack Obama as it was being assembled.” They certainly didn’t GET original portraiture if that was one of their goals. Agree with you that the comparison with Avedon doesn’t hold up, not even close. It looks like a casting shoot.

  15. First off, Rob – f-ing hysterical. Thanks for that. And true…so true.

    @all: I’m reading a lot of “I could’ve done better.” (Between the lines and overtly.) But I’m not seeing any, “I would’ve done…” It’s easy to talk about how you think someone did a lousy job; it’s harder to have a helpful “post-game” and/or what you might have done differently.

    A “tip of the hat” to those who have put in some counter-arguments (eg – the photog doesn’t always have the end-say, politicians are hard subjects, etc). It’s all true; having done a vaguely similar project last fall I find myself more inclined to theorize about why they made the choices they did rather than simply, “Well sh*t – I would’ve done it all differently and it would’ve been SO much better…” Really? How?

    Don’t get me wrong; I – like a lot of commenters – am a big Kander fan who felt underwhelmed with the results from this. But we could try to actually learn something rather than just wasting energy bemoaning how someone got famous and can now get away with producing trash (to paraphrase). What lighting would YOU do? How would you tell Kathy Ryan (a potential career-maker/breaker) – that you feel tethering is interfering or that that v-flat monstrosity has to go? If the art director wants an homage (of sorts) to Avedon’s ‘Family’ – how might you tweak those formal elements to create something new that still fulfills all the requirements?

    I spent a lot of time – too much- playing “grumpy armchair photographer.” It’s a sh*tload less scary than putting yourself out there – knowing that there are legions out there waiting to slam you – in blog comments, for example.

    But as I was told by one guy I used to assist, there is one thing – and one thing only – to be learned from the “I could do that better” mentality: It’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Get out there and prove it.

    ~Rob

  16. P.S. – I can think of at least one way Kander achieved Avedon: “In The American West” also premiered to widespread jeers. You never know.

  17. I like them. i like ‘em better than Riedel’s(and i’m big riedel fan) studio photos in the GQ spread, and i like ‘em better than dan winter’s new york magazine portfolio…..

    I really don’t see these being that different from a lot of the portrait work on his site….it is pretty much nadav doing his thing but, with subjects that are perhaps less visually striking….his portraits are not about personality (at least in my opinion) and that is what ppl seem to be complaining is missing.
    agree the audio is a lil’ pretentious but whatevs.

    It’s too easy to say that sucks when you aren’t in the room doing it yourself.

  18. Excellent post! Love the ‘watch the birdy’

    Regarding the actual pictures, I think they are underwhelming and oversold, but agree that they will be given accolades come awards time because of the names of the people involved.

  19. It seems interesting (and sad) that at a defining moment in American history, Kathy Ryan and the NYT would choose to fly in a photographer from London. There would seem to be an abundant number of excellent American portrait photographers who might have been a better, and more patriotic, choice. And, who probably would have done a better job. Did they even consider this?

  20. I have to agree with Blue Max – isn’t there something really weird about bringing a UK photographer in to shoot the players in this defininitive US event ? I’m not in the US so it’s not a case of sour grapes. But it’s gotta be tough for those many many excelent US based portrait photographers and it says a lot about the magazine staff wanting, above all, to be associated with a ‘hot’ name.

  21. brilliant, Rob.

    I fell back onto the map for one measly comment.

    but I fucking laughed until my side split.

    chirp.

  22. Why did Kathy Ryan choose Nadav Kander? Yes, he is a very fine photographer, but why not a really incredibly American shooter?

    There are several that come to mind: Peter Wang or Mark Tucker would have brought a distinctive approach to these images.

    Nadav’s career will continue to soar from this exposure.

    Given how the economy is and that this is truly an American story, Ms. Ryan could have chosen a shooter equally as good as Mr. Kander.

    Ms. Ryan’s instincts about photographers have been incredible.

    I wonder if using an American photographer was ever a consideration or was she waiting for the right assignment to come along to use Mr. Kander.

    .

  23. matthew pace

    I have all the due respect for Kathy Ryan in being the great editor she is and for Kander …but the honor and opportunity of this assignment should have gone to an American who like Obama would have been given the chance to come out of no where and risen to show us all that anyone could make the difference and bring change.

    To me, Ryan’s decision is an insult to the talent we have at home and Kandars plastic pictures doesn’t give me the depth,intensity nor seriousness of the people that Obama has chosen nor the ones we need at this time.

  24. I agree with all the posters who mention that Kathy Ryan should have selected an American Photographer to shoot this project. Or even if she wanted an English Photographer who lives in the US (There are plenty) because I feel they would have connected with the people they were shooting. Simply by following them in the news and media, and knowing them better. Flying someone from the UK, who isn’t living US Politics through the US media, especially Obama’s People, as for now all his moves are historic and everyone in the US is watching. This would apply to, if you were to send someone from here to the UK and have them shoot Mr. Brown’s people, I think given the time a photographer is given, there wont make a connection.
    As in the case of Nadav Kander, I think the pictures were dull, as there was no connection…..

  25. PS:- I don’t think it’s Nadav Kander’s fault, he a great photographer. Kathy Ryan should have picked someone who is a great photographer and US Based with a passion for todays politics in the US.

  26. Can you imagine how good these images would have been if David Burnett had shot this assignment?

  27. I think these are great images and Nadav Kander did a great job, even if it’s not what we would like to see.
    We’ve had eight years of historic portraits, “Mission Accomplished” imagery. We don’t need drama lighting soft focus or overly art directed portraits.
    I think they look like the goofy worker ants they are, here to clean up a mess drama queens made.
    Rob I think you have a future in graphic novels.

  28. Dueling Standards?

    First off, this was a tough assignment. Five or ten minutes with anyone like this, and nothing but white seamless, well, you’re playing big league ball now.

    Still, you cannot help but comparing them to Avedon’s stuff on white, and these do not hold a candle, in my opinion.

    I’m still hung up on whether or not those weird “bottom-lit shadows” were stripped in, in Photoshop, or not. That, to me, is by far the largest question of this project. Did someone, (Biden), just walk out on the seamless, and there was no separation between the shirt and the seamless, so some Digital Tech, behind the foamcore wall said, “Hey, let’s add a shadow in there, for reproduction issues”? And then, even more bothersome, that technique seemed to stick, and was carried out mostly throughout every image. Why? Did they think no one would notice, when they’re so fake and so badly done?

    And under the guise of a newspaper, with all their harping about ethics and truth? If you were Stephen Crowley or Doug Mills, or any number of the other incredibly talented people on the Times staff, what do you think they’re thinking when they see fake, stripped-in drop shadows like that? You know they’re thinking, under their breath, “Damn, if that was my picture, I’d be fired immediately. We can’t even vignette a corner, or burn a sky, or change the saturation, so this Kander guy strips in a drop-shadow, and everyone is looking to the SPD award show immediately? I don’t get it. If we even shoot an assignment with anything other than a 50mm and available light, we get accused of massive subjectivity!”.

    I don’t get it either.

    I’ve just always found it interesting, the difference in the retouch attitude between the Magazine and the paper itself. Same type of Old English font; Magazine is bundled inside the paper, but vastly different points of view, and modes of operation. Would it be too much to ask to credit the Kander images as photo illustrations? Because, under the heading of “truth”, well, they’re far from it.

    Imagine being a couple in bed, on the Upper West Side, and it’s a Sunday morning, and you’re cozied up with the Sunday paper. Do you think that couple even remotely understands that there are one set of rules for the section of the paper that’s printed on newsprint, but yet a totally separate set of rules for the Magazine, that’s printed on the glossy paper? Wouldn’t you just assume they’d think there was one guiding set of principles for the entire paper, or else, if not, it would be clearly credited in the photo credits, or in a slug at the end of the story? Isn’t the subjective Opinion page credited as Opinion, clearly and boldly?

    I can see why the Magazine would want to do this story, and I can even see why they’d call Nadav Kander, an amazing photographer, but for some reason, this story just really falls flat for me. Maybe we’re just overdosed on all this stuff now, whereas, in the Avedon day, there was not 24/7 cable news and internet, cramming all this down your throat non-stop.

    But it’s those fake shadows that still bug me. You see fake like that, and you think “Well, if they’re bullshitting me on that, then what else are they bullshitting me about?”

    • @Dueling Standards?,

      this is by far the best response in this thread. I don’t think it was an afterthought to put in the shadow, if you look at NK’s portfolio it is there, altho I do not know if it is real or faked.

      my take is that this is the first “design observer” administration, so the fake drop shadow could be construed as editorial by NK.

      but I think you are right, the staffers are scratching their heads. not that they ever would get a shot at the magazine.

  29. An American photographer? Should have been a Chicago photographer. I’d love to see what a skrebneski, manarchy, Oman, gest, or even I would have done

  30. I was hoping someone would post this story. Interesting angle on it Rob. My biggest gripe was why on white? Nadav is known for his night work and long exposures (note the classic and way better Nadav photos of the capitol). If the portraits had been shot on black, or some rich dark color they would have popped, they would have looked like Nadav and they would have been fresh. This way they were kind of expected and safe.

    The pictures from election night of Barack glowing lit on a black background were powerful photographically and symbolically. They were black is beautiful incarnate.

    Nadav did a nice job with a huge array of subjects, but I feel the NYT did not utilize their photographer who they were sooooo excited to work with all that well. Surprising because the NYT is basically the gold standard for appropriate use of photography…

    My guess is that they wanted to shoot on black and someone vetoed it high up??

    emily

  31. Loved the cartoon treatment!..should be more of it. I’ve always liked Nadav Kander’s work but comparing this to Avedon should bring a criminal conviction. The captions I find are more interesting. They should have got Greg Heisler to shoot for a guaranteed result…

    • @Darrell Eager,

      Are you for real. Are you frickin serious? NO ONE suggested this, they only suggested that an American photographer be considered for what is an American event and the reasons for suggesting are they just might have enough insight, experience and knowledge of the people to help them shoot stronger images of the subjects.

      Can you imagine the uproar if a European magazine brought in an American photographer to shoot the cabinet of say the new German Government , or the Italians, the French or the Spanish?

      PLUS, who cares if someone is white (Nadav Kander is and if you look at the behind the scenes photographs, most of the people in the support role are) and so what if they are Christian because Mr. Obama is also Christian.

      Kathy Ryan is a powerhouse, she can choose anyone she wants, has the budget for it and exercises her judgement to use who she feels is the best person for the shoot. That is what she is paid for.

      Personally, I think she should have hired Peter Wang for the shoot. He has the experience with several of these people plus he is a guy on the rise. Or., as others have suggested Burnett or Heisler or even Albert Watson.

      • @Mr. Grumby,

        Annie Leibowitz shot the Queen [Elizabeth] recently, the only outcry was that the TV trailer of the shoot was edited in a misleading way. The fact that Annie was American and was photographing the most Bristish of institutions was never even mentioned.

        As for the repeated insistence that only an American would understand the polictical nuances of shooting an American president’s men is laughable.
        The coverage of the election in the UK was very thorough, as unlike the US media we pay attention to foreign affairs and it was actually very hard to escape the coverage of the whole campaign. People stayed up all night to watch the live coverage of the vote in the UK.

        • @imajes,

          Care to read the NY Times or The Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal and make the comment that Americans do not read or cover foreign affairs?

          This is the first time, in America, we have elected a non-white person to the Presidency. It is a huge deal. The shoot with the Queen was for Vanity Fair. Yes, Nadav did his best.

          However, since you are a subject and we Americans are citizens, we look at this differently. We voted for this man. We care for our country and we want it to be a positive change. An American photographer would have had more insight into the minds of these American politicians and have understood the backstory for most or all of them. I doubt that Mr. Kander knew much or anything about any of his subjects. As a busy ad shooter and a UK resident, he would not have been exposed to the stories about these people.

  32. I hate to say this, but the whole/idea/shoot seems to me a copy of something avedon would have done.

    ‘cept he would have done it in 2-3 shots of 8×10 instead of 50.

    anyways, the ‘toon is a hilarious point of view. thanks for taking the piss, its so needed..

  33. actually now that I look through the series, I really hate these portraits. they have no life, no feeling and everyone looks like a pink version of gumby. sorry nadav.

  34. In looking at the print edition of the magazine I was struck by the Sloan-Kettering ad that was on page 87. It is a studio portrait also against a white background that fades to grey, but this one actually has some shape, shadows and highlights on the face instead of being over-lit with two umbrellas on the side and a center dish.

    The difference to me was a breath of fresh air that put the Kander series to shame.

    I tried and failed to find an online version of the ad. Does anyone else know who is responsible for shooting the Sloan-Ketting campaign?

  35. It strikes me that people are so wound up about the technical side of the shoot, i.e. how it was lit/processed, they are not actually looking at the people captured in the shots. A good portrait photographer manages to capture something of the person and I’d say that’s certainly been done here. Despite the simplicity of the set up, the images are not repetitive. Whether you like the aesthetic of the shots is simply personal taste. And complaining about something not to your taste is a pointless, never ending task.
    A major part of getting good shots in this sort of environment is how well you interact with the people being photographed – that is waaaay more important than being a lighting wizard.

  36. I think the shots are great and I think bringing in a non-american photographer for this was the best thing to do. What Kander has accomplished is a pictorial index of Obama’s team, leaving out all the glorification/deification that some of the posters here would’ve wished for.
    And while maybe not every shot is a masterpiece by itself, the series as a whole is very good.

    And what’s with all the b*tching about the soft shadows? Who says it’s done in post and even if so, who cares? Besides, it’s not exactly the first time he’s used this so why the big surprise?

    • @an,

      What Kander has accomplished is a pictorial index of Obama’s team, leaving out all the glorification/deification that some of the posters here would’ve wished for.

      Where was it commented that some wanted glorification/deification? I must have missed that post.

      Knowing more about the personality you are photographing does not mean that you plan to place them on a pedestal!

      • @C,
        Granted there was some polemic in that remark but some of the previous posts (and I’m not going to single out a specific one here) suggested that the imagery should’ve been more iconic (I’m paraphrasing).

        Knowing more about the personality you are photographing is great but sometimes too many different personalities can be overwhelming. And how would you expect someone to know as much about Obama’s PA as they he know about Hilary Clinton? Kander treated everyone the same and if you didn’t know the people you wouldn’t know who’s more and who’s less important.

        I think that sometimes it’s more important for a series of photos to be consistent than it is for it to contain a couple of iconic images. After all the best books are not the one’s that contain the best quotes.

      • @C, this talk of connecting with the subject, whether or not it happened is just the most subjective irrelevant crap. These are just pictures. I actually find the fact that they seem to lack a glossy attitude projected by somebody who thinks they know better is a good thing. Nationality of the photog is another irrelevance.

  37. In 1979 the late Arnold Newman was commissioned by The Sunday TImes(London, pre-Murdoch, not New York) to photograph 75 leading British personalities for an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. There is a terrific book that resulted from the project called The Great British. Maybe the editor, Michael Rand, felt there wasn’t a British photographer of Newman’s stature, but I’m sure it caused some grumbling among British photographers, not unlike what I’ve read here. But the results spoke for themselves.

    There are many photographers who could have done this job well, irrespective of nationality, but Heisler or Burnett would have been great choices if being American was a determining factor. And my gut tells me the NYT would have been better off for it. But I also feel the nationality of the shooter in this case shouldn’t matter. Its the pictures that matter. And in the present case they also speak for themselves, provoking the range of responses we see here. And who knows? Maybe the NYT Magazine’s editors have more to answer for here than the photographer.

  38. A Usual Suspect

    Second time I’ve cried today, first, watching the MLK I Have A Dream Speech on youtube, the second, looking at this…effing hilarious. Happy 2009 Rob, hold on to your hat -

  39. Reading all the posts, I think a US based photographer should have been used. I think Timothy Greenfield Sanders would have been great as well. I do think that liking or not liking what Nadav Kander did is subjective. Therefore this is just my opinion. I think the subjects look like “Plastic” and the post production is awful. I don’t like the drop in shadows. The subjects all seem to be soul-less. Again that’s just my opinion. Given the time he had to shoot them, it must have been very difficult to make a connection, and that’s why my earlier comment, NYT should have picked someone who knows these people and is following the politics.

  40. Explain exactly how this work would have been somehow improved if produced by a US based photographer. To suggest such is ludicrous. As if The Americans would have somehow been better had Robert Frank been born in Chicago? I’m reminded of DJ Stout, one of the great magazine art directors who often took grief for not hiring Texas based photographers exclusively at Texas Monthly, he simply replied “I don’t hire artists by zip code”.

    An examination of Kander’s work shows this lighting technique along with the shadow is something he has long employed. And while I initially found it uninspiring I’ve come to believe a more shadowed richer light would intrude in allowing the viewer to simply see the person (subject), which is I think the goal of this project. I think this project succeeds by letting the subjects tell their own stories without being burdened by the weight of heavy handed technique. I suppose many might say the project fails for the same reason.

    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. I find it particularly interesting that the most vocal critics post anonymously.

    To suggest that a different photographer would have somehow produced a better body of work is pointless. “She shoulda hired Annie, Heisler, Greenfield–Sanders. Why not Terry Richardson for god’s sake. To suggest the Times somehow made a mistake only opens oneself to the same criticism anytime your own work is published. Furthermore to suggest they only hired Kander so as to associate themselves with a “hot name” is ridiculous. Anyone who reads The New York Times Magazine knows it to be one of the finest outlets for serious photography anywhere and hardly needs a name photographer to further it’s standing.

    I find these portraits and this portfolio to be a compelling, if perhaps imperfect, portrait of a group of people whose shoulders the weight of expectations, hopes and dreams of the entire world must carry. I can only hope these people receive a better range of considerations than have Kander’s photographs from blog critics.

  41. I think I should have done the shoot. Nobody knows who I am, but then nobody knew who Barak Obama was 4 years ago and look where he is now?

    I’m not impressed with the photos. If they are captured in the spirit of the new team, the photos make them look ill-prepared, uncertain, a bit too quirky, quite a departure from the impression Obama has been trying to achieve during his campaign and pre-inauguration preparation. The photos look like they were shot during an office party or following a big lay-off.

    However, benefit of the doubt, maybe it was a slam-bam process with no time to know who was showing up or when, what they would be wearing, what mood they’d be in, or how much interaction Kander would be able to have with his subjects. In that case, the simple lighting setup and “flow through” workflow – in one side, stand, click, out the other – might have been the only option available in the time given.

  42. @Mr. Grumby, -”I doubt that Mr. Kander knew much or anything about any of his subjects. As a busy ad shooter and a UK resident, he would not have been exposed to the stories about these people.”

    Of course not. Brits know nothing about the rest of the world as they rarely travel abroad or pay attention to other countries except to invade. Oh sorry I got them mixed up with Americans. The Brits travel abroad lots, mainly to get drunk and party though! ;-)
    Actually out press covers American affairs in a lot of detail – we supposedly have a ‘special’ relationship, so we tend to know more about American politics/events than European affairs.
    I also beleive ad photographers are allowed one hour a week out of their cage to read a newspaper. But only one with big pictures in and large text.

    As for some US papers having foreign affairs, that is true and they are the ones you can buy in Europe uusally. But they are the minority. America is a quite parochial country compared to say European countries mainly as a result of geography and short holidays and I’m not talking through ignorance here as I have spent time in the US, have family there and my girlfriend’s company is American.

    As for the we voted for…..line. How do you explain George W. Bush’s presidency? As it seems voting for candidates, didn’t actually have any effect in some places, assuming you were allowed to vote in first place.

    This is all getting a bit OT for a photography blog, but at least this time the voters choice actually counted and got a decent man in.

  43. Actually for those who think an American photographer would have done a better job, how come no-one has suggested Jill Greenburg? After all she has a track record in photographing politicians and seems to like the democrats.
    :-)

  44. Gary Haynes

    Alfred Eisenstadt once said “it is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”

    “Portraits” of people that tell you more about the photographer than his/her subject became the rage in the 70s, and the NYT was a leader of the trend. Some of these are so bad they remind me of those shots made of a loved one lying in the coffin at a funeral, made because the next-of-kin had no good portrait of the deceased.

    Getting all these high-profile folks to appear in the same setting would be akin to herding cats. These folks no doubt agreed to do this because the mighty New York Times invited them to. But you can only wonder what might have resulted had they then hired a real photographer – or more charitably, the right photographer for the job. Kander’s photos don’t even rise to the level of decent photography – these are more like (not PC) “Mexican Justice” photos – “put up against the wall and shoot ‘em.” Some of the published photos look like “outtakes” from some assignment, and others resemble something you’d expect from one of those photo kiosks, where you drop your money and take your chances.

    This called for a journalism approach. Instead of letting this collection of remarkable individuals do their thing, giving us a glimpse or at least a hint of their personalities, the photographer has posed them, uncomfortably, against a white background posing in ways that tells you far more about himself than his subjects, trying perhaps for “art” and missing the point of the exercise.

    The NYTMag text tells us he had help, which may be part of the problem since almost all the subjects appear to be looking somewhere other than at the camera.

    The women seem especially uncomfortable, and don’t know what to do with their hands. It even appears that nobody was reminded to stand up straight. There is a sameness about the dreary pictures. They’re all verticals, but the framing isn’t even uniform – Samantha Power is a headshot plus her flowing red hair; other subjects are cropped at the knees.

    Robert Bauer, indoors, still wears his coat and scarf. Melody Barnes is looking at something – a way to get out of the room, perhaps? Harry Reid seems to have his eyes closed (see paragraph 2 about coffin shots, above); Rahm Emanuel, a sharp cookie, looks as if he can’t believe he got himself suckered into this. Sen. Robert Casey, in suit and tie – and holding a basketball, looks as if his team just lost. Reggie Lowe has his sunglases clipped to the front of his shirt.

    Several years ago I was quite literally startled by the cover of the NYT Mag because a black-and-white grimy-looking photo of “bag person” looked sort of like a down-on-his-luck Sondheim. Startled because it WAS Sondheim, who is reported to have torn the cover off the magazine and taped it to the door of a one of his current Broadway shows. He wrote ‘WILL WORK FOR MUSIC.” on it.

    There is no music in these current NYTMag disasters – the photographer, I suspect, along with nearly everybody involved behind the camera in the project including some photo editor, on this one was tone deaf.

    • @Gary Haynes,

      You have a lot of valid points with which I agree. I spoke before about the arrogance of a lot of PE’s and AD’s in their praise of certain photographers for the ‘artistic’ value of their work.

      I’m not an art photographer, I’m a photojournalist. That means that the most important part of my image is its ability to convey a message to the viewer. Likewise, the NYT Mag is not an art magazine, it’s a journal geared to the average citizen.

      Some will argue that these images have good artistic value. That may be the case by whatever standard one judges artistic value. The question however is how much journalistic value do they have? Will readers of the NYT Mag connect with the images and do they convey messages to the readers? The messages in this case, are the personalities of Obama’s people.

      I tried an experiment and asked a few average citizens what they thought of the images. “I’m not impressed,” and “They didn’t do anything for me,” are microcosms of the overwhelming responses.

      In some cases, artists make the worst critics of ‘art.’ This, in my opinion is one of those cases. I believe that the purpose of this project was to introduce the country and the world to the people who are charged with executing the policies and promises of the Obama administration. My own little experiment, combined with what I’ve read by other ‘citizen’ critics, indicates that the project was a miserable failure.

      To some art collectors and AD’s, these images might possess overwhelming artistic value in the aesthetics. But to the average citizen, they seem to have no value at all.

    • p.s. a quote from my man Gordon Parks,

      “The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.”

  45. This is a copy of a letter I wrote to the editors of the NYTimes. They will no doubt disregard it.

    As a reader and subscriber to the NYTimes for untold years, and also as a professional photographer of 30 years, I was deeply offended by your photographic essay on “Obama’s People.” When Obama has been inspirational in bringing out the best in us, the NYTimes has chosen a photographer and a style that is unflattering at best, and degrading and humiliating at its very worst. The photographs say more about the style that was imposed than they say about the subjects depicted. The lighting used to photograph the subjects was analogous to placing people on the face of a Xerox copying machine. As a specialist in portraiture, I would never photograph people in such light, as it would impose an unnatural and undignified feel to every image made under these circumstances.
    It is no secret that we as a nation are facing numerous simultaneous crises. Many nations and peoples of the world have their hopes riding on the success of this new team, and want them to succeed. Why would the NYTimes choose to deliberately and intentionally illustrate these accomplished people in literally such a bad light? A fine portrait photographer, of which there are many, would try to capture the real personality of their subjects with dignity, and not use their style in a form of ridiculing caricature. This certainly does not reflect well on the NYTimes.

  46. The comparison the Times made to Avedon is beyond pretentious.

    Rolling Stone was a magazine that took risks (back then, not now) and the resulting Avedon images show that risk. By contrast, these images show a lack of risk and a lack of impact and result.

    The lighting isn’t just a formal quality of the photograph, but it’s a good metaphor for the impact of the photos:
    Avedon/RS = strong & directional
    Nadav/NYT = flat & nondirectional

  47. Rob,

    The last one was the best! One of my oldest friends worked at MJ during the formative years and was also ME at quite a few mags. We worked together on a lot of shoots, some freelance, some for those he ran. Invariably someone would come in to the meetings without having read the story and start moving stuff around like they were a little kid playing jacks! I think, as a fellow photographer, that Kandar did a great job within the time constraints that I’m sure existed. You set up your lighting and then just shove people into the set as soon as they turn up. The sad part is that with the total move to digital, the time constraints seem to get shorter and shorter, no matter the stature of the people you are assigned to shoot.

  48. He was doing 13 shots a day for 4 days straight. Yeah it would be great to have him to a more “Kanderesque” portrait of each subject, but the fact is that those take time.

    Furthermore, this shoot is not about applying Kander’s creative whims to each subject. It is an historic record of Obamas People. Shooting them on white with ordinary light actually brings to light interesting similarities and differences between the subjects.

    I think he picked a smart, timeless shooting and lighting style that allowed him to catch some really nice. telling subtleties. When you only have 10 minutes with a subject, and you HAVE to get a shot of each person, you need to be ready for anything.

    My only complaint were some of the missed opportunities at image pairs:

    “What’s up with the finger on his right hand…..Oh!”
    Rahm Emanuel
    Lawrence Summers

    “I am going to burn a hole in you with lasers from my eyeballs” aka “oh my god I can’t believe he picked THAT one of me.”
    Jackie Norris
    Ellen Moran

    “I am going to tear off your head and shit down your throat”:
    Robert Gates
    Jim Messina and/or Jack Reed

  49. Fred R. Conrad

    Nadev Kander’s portfolio, “Obama’s People” should have been called, “White House Baseball Cards”. The assembly line photo sessions have a lot in common with “Picture Day” during Spring Training. I think that Kander and his crew did great considering the challenge of the assignment and everyone would have been happy if the Sunday Magazine had included the bubble gum.

  50. This is so funny APE! Your blog is great.

    This is the first time I’ve ever been inspired to comment – and coming late to the conversation at that – but I just have to say that I love these portraits.

    Here in DC I’ve been there way too often with no time and political animals who for the most part are not AT ALL wanting to reveal anything. So Kander and Ryan’s solution in the set-up was a perfect way to simplify it and concentrate on the subject and work fast.

    I like the cool, hip, flatness of the lighting (to go with our new cool president) and the descriptive quality it brings. The framing allowed for enough body language to get some telling gestures. To me it really feels like he just let them be who they are.

  51. I’m only a photo consumer, but I am from Chicago. Nadev ought to have shot these characters against a brick wall, preferably the one that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place against.

    Rahm is actually hot looking. The condescending shoot the short guy from above angle is a cheapshot.

    Irving Penn shot against white walls and got some interest into the photos. These make the characters look like cardboard cut-outs or dead bodies (the one of Harry Reid.)

    Your insider comic was FANTASTIC, though.
    b