Formal and frank, yet playful and stylised, Nadav Kander’s individual portraits of the 53 members of President Obama’s cabinet constitute one of the most significant commissioned photographic series of the decade. This epochal body of work amplifies the quiet communication between artist and sitter, as the photographer conjures the characters of his subjects through a unique appreciation of the theatricality of detail and expression.
The New York Times Director of Photography, Kathy Ryan, approached Kander with Richard Avedon’s 1976 project for Rolling Stone Magazine, The Family, as a source of inspiration. The idea was to photograph Obama’s administration as it was being assembled, documenting and creatively capturing a political anatomy-in-progress. For the magazine, the commission provided the chance to spotlight characters that may well prove highly influential in the coming months and years. For the photographer, the project offered a singular opportunity to picture the embodied make-up of an entire political cabinet before his lens.
Each subject was photographed in front of the same white backdrop, standing in a 2ft by 2ft box marked out by tape. They were asked to bring an item that disclosed something about their personality. "One guy [Senator Robert Casey] brought a basketball because he played daily with Barack Obama," says Kander. "Other people brought me ties. Ken Salazar [interior secretary] brought his cowboy hat. A lot of people said, 'Look I've got two BlackBerries' - surprise."