Guest Photographer: Nadav Kander, Yangtze, The Long River

October 04, 2012  •  7 Comments

Art has a habit of starting off as one thing and ending up as another. So when Nadav Kander first had the idea for the project that would become Yangtze, The Long River, he had no intention of making a documentary - in fact no clear plan at all. And yet the book containing the full set of images has a foreword by Kofi Annan, who presented the 2009 Prix Pictet to Kander for the work. In that introduction, Annan says of the images that 'they confront us with the need to maintain the political pressures on the world's policy makers to take urgent action to secure the future of our planet.'

So a series of photographs that started as a loose idea has ended not only as a great work of art, but as a documentary and a force for political and environmental change.

As a man who has experienced dislocation himself (born in Israel, raised in South Africa, works mainly out of England) and who has a recent family history of geographical shift (Russia, Germany) he finds himself drawn to the vulnerability of those displaced by the forces of history. It was this spark of empathy that first took him to China, and then drew him back a further four times, 'scouring and looking for pictures that made me tick,' as he puts it.


01. Changxing Island I (Island of Oranges), Shanghai

Changxing Island I (Island of Oranges), Shanghai

Travelling with an assistant and a 4x5 film camera, he traced the course of the Yangtze river from mouth to source and in so doing, created a body of work that follows the history of China itself - from the glossy, technologically cutting-edge city of Shanghai through the smoggy, industrialising interior to the pristine source, which looks as it must have done for millennia before the industrial age.


04. Pudong I, Shanghai

Pudong I, Shanghai

Along the way he passed a population greater than that of the entire United States of America for, on the banks of this one river, lives an astonishing eighteen percent of the entire human race. And as a major source of transport, power, irrigation and water supply in the world's most populous and most rapidly developing nation, a huge number of those people are in transition.


05. Nanjing II (Metal Palm), Jiangsu Province

Nanjing II (Metal Palm), Jiangsu Province

These transitions are economic, social, political, cultural and most dramatically geographical. Many of the villages in which people were born and raised can no longer be visited; they have been razed, replaced by new cities or huge highways, by factories and facilities and bridges and dams. Entire valleys are gone, the landscape itself gouged and roughly re-shaped so as not to stand in the way of progress. The fate of this river is, then, a powerful metaphor for the nation and its people, their past, present and future re-shaped, straightened, tapped, made more efficient, more useful, less beautiful and less natural.


06. Fengjie III (Monument to Progress and Prosperity), Chongqing Municipality

Fengjie III (Monument to Progress and Prosperity), Chongqing Municipality

The river itself, now running with the toxic overflows of agriculture and industry, has an almost spiritual role in China's consciousness. As an inspiration for poets over many generations it has shaped the sense that people have of what it is to be Chinese and, in its latest iteration, it remains true to this role. As Kander's images show, the poetry has not gone though it has adopted a less romantic, darker and sadder tone. What started as a love song has become a lament.


07. Old Fengdu II, (Looking At New Fengdu), Chongqing Municipality

Old Fengdu II, (Looking At New Fengdu), Chongqing Municipality

Signature motifs of the series are many and are worth observing, because this is how a master at the top of his game draws together the disparate strands of so many images taken over so much time and distance into something which is both aesthetically and narratively whole.

The colour palette, majoring on exhausted, sear browns and smoggy greys (but very often with a splash of blue) is reminiscent of traditional Chinese 'wash' painting, known as Shui-mo, but the compositions and content contain elements of Gong-bi, the more calligraphic style, which manages to be both highly detailed and minimalist at the same time.


12. Chongqing II, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing II, Chongqing Municipality

Kander also uses the nature of the light very knowingly: the displaced people are often shown in sharper, foreground relief against the hazy, smog-stained technology rising around them. But in many scenes, the people are absent altogether, having dissolved into nothingness under the onslaught of the technology that is meant to serve them.


11. Chongqing I, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing I, Chongqing Municipality

The use of scale is as important as that of light and perspective: I am reminded, in some of these images, of those stunning Spielberg juxtapositions of scale between humanity and monolithic spacecraft, used to indicate absolute dominance over absolute fragility. 


17. Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality

I own a very large, framed print of the image above and I want to say clearly that, beautiful though it might look on a web page or in a book, its true nature is revealed only at the scale of a more-than-one-metre-wide print. The detail is meticulous but not dominant, the tonality and transitions displaying the subtlety that come naturally to 4x5 film, carefully stitched from more than one shot. It is jaw-droppingly lovely, and I fell in love with it the first moment I saw it when this series was shown at Flowers East gallery in London.

Kander does not, however, shoehorn the images into too tight a narrative: there are other scenes where the monoliths accommodate the people, being turned to unintended human uses. Below is one of the most iconic images of the series, and it makes the point that this story is not about extinction but rather, enforced adaptation - about human strength as much as about human vulnerability. The flyover and bridge may be newly built, the people apparently sidelined in the expressway rush to make and to ship product; but the sampan still finds space on the waters and the family picnic indicates that life will go on, using the monster that towers over them for protection rather than transportation.


13. Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality

Similarly here, the bathers are not about to give up their pursuit of leisure in the face of the glowering hulk or steaming stacks opposite.


18. Yibin I (Bathers), Sichuan Province

Yibin I (Bathers), Sichuan Province

As the series moves further up river, the colour palette and the light begin to shift towards the more naturalistic. The scale of the landscape starts to dominate that of the built environment, showing that it has the longer game in mind, and the power to overwhelm the incursions of man. The following shot is wonderfully metaphoric: the river may be bleeding from its injuries, but it has delivered a fatal blow to the bridge.


21. Qinghai Province II

Qinghai Province II

Finally, there is a return to the source, to the pristine, and to some sense of the abiding nature of a land so vast in scope that at its deep heart it remains unchanged.


23. Qinghai Province III

Qinghai Province III


About Intention

Kander himself told me, when I was asking about his inspiration for and purpose in making this series, that he 'never does pictorial landscapes and had no intention to do documentary.'  Rather, he went to China because it was troubled (as noted above, he is attracted to the vulnerability of the displaced) and returned four times as he worked through what he saw of that trouble. And what that 'working through' has led to is most certainly a document, and a series of pictorial landscapes, and a great deal more besides.

Any undergraduate student of post-structuralist critical theory can tell you that all narrative has more than one meaning and that, to an extent, the intent of the author is secondary to that which arises in the mind of the reader or viewer*. Nonetheless, that authorial intention is clearly of significant interest. What Kander shows us with this series is that intention does not have to precede creation: you can start a project guided by nothing but intuition, by following your nose. As the project grows and progresses, narrative possibilities and meanings will suggest themselves, whether consciously or not. The subject matter itself begins to resolve into a story, and any intent with which the artist started can be dammed, diverted and tapped in ways different from those originally envisaged.

This process reaches its logical conclusion in the final edit, and the ordering of sequence in which a serial work is shown. When I asked Kander about this he said that his intention in the editing phase was the same as it had been up-front: a general desire to investigate the fragility, weaknesses and strengths of humanity itself. In other words, there was no conscious 'emerging documentary intent'. But he is nonetheless delighted that people read it that way because, like our student of post-structuralist theory above, he believes that meaning lies primarily with the viewer. For him, the edit and ordering was about representing a geographical progress from the mouth of the river to its source: but he is clearly very happy indeed with the post-hoc documentary interpretation of the series. 'I find it lovely that people read it that way,' he says.

About Method

Kander shot the entire series on 4x5 film. He also shoots medium format digital (Phase One p65+) but he says that for certain kinds of project he 'finds digital colour too accurate'. And who is to argue? It's all about which roots and powders and pigments you mix to get the palette you want. He also said that 'film keeps you feeling uncertain for longer' and it is clear that the tension evinced by such uncertainty is part of his creative process.

At one point in the project he experimented briefly with compositing. My understanding is that this grew out of the occasional need to stitch frames in order to get the right field of view and perspective and led to some images in which people had been 'lifted' from one location and pasted into another, their journey in post-production software serving as a metaphor for the geographical dislocations they had experienced. But eventually he decided to expunge these scenes: 'No falsification was needed,' he says simply.

My great thanks to both Nadav and his assistant, Felicity McCabe, for their great help and cooperation in the writing of this piece.


* to me, for example, this series is effectively a 'road movie': it follows the traditional narrative of following a physical pathway towards something pure, liberating, and more true to the human essence than whatever is encountered en route. Whether it's about destiny or history, it's about getting to nirvana, which is peace and understanding, in one way or another.




An interesting - somewhat muted - series of images of places I know well. I am in China on a regular basis (for over 30 years now in fact), and have witnessed and documented the process of dislocation ever since Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms started to take hold. Alas, the country's history of dislocation and forced migration really is a long and painful one, longer than one cares to reflect on. But it is only recently that highly invasive technologies have sunk their teeth into the land, and much of that features in the images posted here. There are more subtle (and far more damaging) processes at play, though, they have to do with food security, with language, the control of memories, with cultural heritage, tangible and intangible - all of that is up for sale and trade these days, with absolutely devastating consequences. A troubled place, indeed...and fascinating nonetheless!
I'm a big fan of Nadav's work. But looking at the images more closely now I am wondering if the people in the pictures are posed. They certainly look posed, which to me detracts from the pictures, as it lessens their authenticity.
Tim Ashley Studio
Interesting thought Ian: for me, the 'source shots' are also kind of bleak, but more in a 'purity of nature' kind of way rather than a 'blasted to bits by humanity' kind of way. I love that novel though, and the movie is pretty cool too... there are said to only be about seven core narrative plots in total, and since The Grapes of Wrath, the American Novel has been mostly in the Road genre, even when it appears to be about people. Discusss ;-)
Ian Watts(non-registered)
Very interesting that you interpret the Yangtze series as a kind of road movie about "getting to nirvana". I also see a similar narrative structure but with a much more pessimistic end. When looking at this book I'm always drawn to the final half dozen or so photographs which are particularly beautiful. However, beauty is often rather haunting and these remind me of Cormac McCarthy's allegorical novel The Road and its landscape devoid not just of humanity but pretty much all of life itself.
Daniel Moore(non-registered)
'Enriching' is the word that comes to mind having read this latest post, and the one before it and the one before that. The content here is so rich and the presentation so well formed I feel as if with each post a new wing in the museum is being built.

...'film keeps you feeling uncertain for longer' - poignant, true and speaks to the over-populated orphanage of digital's domain.

Rarely do I reread anything on the net, and more rarely am happy to have done so. Thanks Tim, and thank you Nadav.
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