Dr.Ute Bopp-Schumacher: Work in Progress (english)

“Through a series, the photographer reveals how his gaze operates, according to which criteria he selects things, which aspects of the world attract his attention and in what light he views reality.”1 Boris Groys
Born in 1958 in Saarbrücken, the artist Roland Fischer studied mathematics for several terms, but soon concentrated on photography. After some early attempts at large-scale, black-and-white portraits, which Fischer was able to exhibit at the Goethe Institut in New York in 1981,2 from 1984 he continually creates, mostly in succession, conceptual, large-scale series of works.
For a long time, the human face stood at the center of Fischer’s series: Nuns and Monks, Los Angeles Portraits, Chinese Pool Portraits as well as the Collective Portraits. The latter are comprised of many individual portraits of members of a group defined by the artist. The second group in the work of Roland Fischer addresses the subject-matter of architecture. This includes the series Cathedrals, Alhambra, New Architectures, Façades and Transhistorical Places.
Fischer creates his artistic series over a longer period of time, starting from several ideas and considerations. Every sequence is based on a structured procedure, which Fischer has developed as concepts from comprehensive, meticulous research. Each series of works is then implemented rigorously to technical perfection with real images and every available means provided by the medium. The artist plans the individual productions of the photographs like a film director. In addition, the travel usually required for the photographs needs preparation, too. By the second half of the 1990s, digital post-production of the selected works takes up a lot of time. Before releasing a work, each detail must fulfill the expectations and ideas of the artist. Preparing the Bitburg exhibition, Fischer closely coordinates the installation of the works with the curator of the show.
Roland Fischer’s first conceptual series Nuns and Monks originated around the middle of the 1980s over a period of three years. The artist photographed members of the Cistercians and the Trappists in almost all monasteries of these orders in France.3 Fischer was still based in Paris at the time when he shot the portraits of the brothers and sisters in their secluded surroundings where they had chosen to withdraw from the world. The portraits are mostly busts that fill the entire frame. They are taken in the vertical format and enlarged to copies of 170 by 120 centimeters. A few of them show the order members as half-length figures in their simple habits, which cloak their bodies. We do not learn the names of the sitters.
Fischer places the focus of the pictured nuns and monks on their faces. These are framed by the cowls of their habits. Those of the monks are frequently dark. Some wear the white cuculla donned for attending mass. Hair is as good as invisible. Facial expressions are rudimentary at best. To viewers these tranquil and serious portraits of people living in hermetic communities appear as if through a magnifying mirror. The form of the faces, the mouths, the noses, wrinkles and a hint of stubble invite close inspection. The sitters look directly into the photographer’s eye, or the camera: their gaze is clear, alert, stern, the eyelids only half-open, the mere suggestion of a smile, furtive, expressionless or inscrutable – the photographs convey an “idea” of the personalities of those photographed in razor-sharp, unadorned images.
Despite their physiognomies being shaped by age, lifestyle and character, the glossy, smooth surfaces of the pictures allow only for vague guesses at the disposition of the individual monastic order members. Those guesses are, for the most part, “fueled” by our own (visual) experience and imagination. For it is only a genuine look and the voice which bring a face to life4 and convey something of the character of a person. Contemplating these photographic portraits, we can only speculate as to what has motivated the sitters to assume a life away from worldly concerns in strict seclusion.
In the Bitburg selection of the nuns and monks, the portrait of an older monk, who looks intensely into the camera and into distance at the same time while holding a skull in his left hand, is the exception: the large, horizontal format shows this monk in the classical pose of Memento mori: be aware of your own mortality.5 In this image Roland Fischer takes up the dialectic of visual representation in portraiture, which expresses itself in the contrast between the surfaces of the habit and the face as part of the human body. Here, it appears in the greatest opposition imaginable: that of to be or not to be.
In 1989 all of Roland Fischer’s then realized photographs in the series Nuns and Monks were exhibited at Musée d‘Art Moderne de la Ville Paris in a major solo show and documented in an accompanying catalogue. At Neue Galerie im Haus Beda, in addition to Mönch mit dem Totenkopf, five further portraits of Cistercian monks are being presented on red walls in the first main exhibition hall. Two of the monk portraits are on public display here for the very first time. The original portraits contained a number of small optical defects, which Fischer has now corrected.
The Los Angeles Portraits are large-scale portraits of female busts. Motionless, the women stand in water that reaches their shoulders. Their erect posture lends an almost majestic radiance to the sitters. The background is comprised of lightblue, nearly black or, rarely, azure blue water. The monochrome color scheme recalls a kind of firmament, which frames the sitters. Only at the bottom edge of the images, where the water touches the shoulders of the models, is its transparence visible. Expressionless, the women in the portraits gaze with open eyes directly into the camera. In a parallel to the Nuns and Monks we do not learn the names of the Californian models. The titles of the individual portraits are again given as numbers. And yet these are personalities, stirring the imagination of the viewers, moving them to read all kinds of things into them.
As the title states, the series originated in Los Angeles because, unlike in Germany, Roland Fischer was able to conduct such extravagant shootings in permanently sunny conditions under the cloudless skies of California. The images themselves, however, are completely devoid of any local context. This project was realized between 1989 and 1993. Fischer used exclusively analogue means, so no digital post-production. The shootings made great demands on the models’ stamina. They had to stand still until every last detail, but particularly the light, facial expression (or lack thereof) and posture were just right. Given such rigorous standards, some of the photographs in this lavish series could not be used due to small blemishes, which could not be remedied with the means available at the time. Thanks to later, digital editing, Neue Galerie im Haus Beda is able to show two Los Angeles Portraits in public for the first time. In addition to this one, three more images of the series are on display in the main exhibition space.
The Pool Portraits were continued with Chinese models in 2007. Fischer, who lived in China at the time, focused on representatives of modern Chinese society in this ‚reissue‘ of the pool images. The series Chinese Pool Portraits was realized in film studios in Beijing and Shanghai. There, Fischer had swimming pools constructed that were lit by reflectors and film spots to match the soft Californian daylight as much as possible.6 Unlike in the American portraits, Fischer gives the names of the women in the Chinese Pool Portraits in the titles. On average, these appear younger than the American models. The size of the prints, however, is identical with the works from Los Angeles. With very few exceptions, the artist photographs the Chinese models in profile: sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left, but as sculpturesque and as motionless as the Americans. The fact that the Asian women do not look at the viewers directly makes it harder to detect their personalities, which are hidden behind an immaculate façade. The background of the portraits is once again the water in the pools. This monochrome, yet iridescent, color space of dark turquoise and a range of blue tones evokes, in yet another similarity to the photographs taken in Los Angeles, images of the universe. In the Bitburg foyer, the portrait Jia Yi#3516 is presented in an enlarged version as a wall installation.
It was also in China that Roland Fischer created the first in the series Collective Portraits in 1998. Initially, he realized a four-meter-wide group photograph showing 450 passport-like portraits of Chinese students. As with all the subsequent Collective Portraits, the artist arranges frontal shots of a group of people belonging to a certain occupational category or following a similar trade into large tableaux, in rank and file, side-by-side and in rows one above the other. The individual portraits appear in a grid-like form with the name of each sitter underneath his or her picture. In this manner, the collective image narrative, which, from a distance, looks like an abstract pattern, is dissolved into individuals when viewed at close quarters. The anonymous mass turns out to be an accumulation of individual portraits, which are perceived as particular images only by focusing on them individually. Hand in hand with this goes the neglect of the group, which then, in turn, appears out of focus. Inversely, looking at the collective leads to a blurred perception of the individual faces.7
Similarly, Fischer designed collective portraits of Chinese Farmers (1998), Steelworkers (2000) and Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (2002). That is, he depicted four important social groups of Chinese Communist society. In doing so, he addresses, on the one hand, the individual and, on the other, a “social fabric” against the background of Chinese society with its huge population.8
The tension between individual and a group defined by the artist also shapes the 2003 collective portrait of 1,050 pilgrims on the Way of St. James. Fischer photographs the pilgrims having reached their destination: arriving at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He creates passport-like portraits, which he then arranges in a grid. The common element to the persons depicted is their arrival at the pilgrimage site. The collective portrait unifies women and men of all ages, countries, classes. It remains unclear whether, for whatever reasons, or indeed how far, they have walked. Other collective portraits Fischer has completed over the years include: Transit Passengers Airport Frankfurt (2000), Employees Ferrovial (2002), Israeli Collective Portrait (2015), Refugees (2016) and African Collective Portrait (2017).
The Bitburg exhibition presents the collective portrait of the pilgrims as a room-high wall installation with a width of ten meters. The slightly longer wall facing the installation was turned into a wall-sized TEXT-BILD-Komposition with geometrical and amorphous shapes as well as intersecting color fields. Part of this composition are numerous fragments of text, excerpts and quotations, referring to notions of form, visibility or the other. Moreover, this kind of notice board contains various statements by the artist as well as a statement by the philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels on the epistemic significance of a collective portrait. The dynamic staging of this wall also recalls Avantgarde advertising designs influenced by Bauhaus. The quotations differ in font size and are to be understood as sources of inspiration both for contemplating the portraits of the pilgrims and the entire exhibition. This poetic verbal image is a temporary artwork that reveals much about the worlds and theses with which the artist Roland Fischer has been concerned in the context of his work for many years.
The exteriors of large buildings, the shells of modern structures designed by architects and designers, have formed a focus of Fischer’s work since the 1990s. He has taken photographs of façades of architectural complexes, particularly of banks, headquarters of companies, department stores or museums around the world. In metropolitan cities, such as Munich, Paris, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Sao-Paulo, Brasilia, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Hongkong, Singapore, Melbourne etc., the artist finds the latest additions to his series. Completely freed from their spatial contexts, the details of the fronts are striking for their designs based on simple, distinctive geometric forms: lines, squares, rectangles, circles as well as grids and crystalline structures. These
„faces of the urban“ selected by Fischer bear no relation to the regional peculiarities, but resemble each other regardless of the countries in which they happen to be located.9 The designs of these façades were created by international architects working for globally operating clients. Hence they impress through their polyglot aesthetics. At the same time the visually memorable designs remind us of various styles from art history, such as the Constructivist art of Kazimir Malevich, the Concrete art of Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill or Anton Stankowski as well as the Dutch De Stijl movement of Piet Mondrian or even the Op Art of the 1960s. Fischer’s artificial isolation makes this aspect of the façade details particularly obvious.
Since Roland Fischer’s series Façades provides neither comprehensive views of the buildings nor logograms, it is only the images’ titles that offer clues to the identity of the structures and institutions or locations in question. Despite this intentional decontextualizing, particular details betray themselves through their extravagant designs: for instance, the distinctive façade of Museum Brandhorst with its vertically mounted ceramic panels, the golden shimmer and brass profiles of the extension building of the Lenbachhaus also in Munich or the silvery shine of the seminal pattern of framed aluminum tubes of the World Trade Centers in New York.
As Fischer’s portraits give away little of the psychological state and personality of the sitters, so his façade details, while showing the skin of specific buildings, do not give us any indication of what goes on inside of these houses.
The series Cathedrals has been ongoing since 1996. Fischer started it in France and Spain before moving on to Germany and the rest of Europe. The artist studies the architecture of the selected churches extensively before taking photographs. He explores various perspectives on the interior and the exterior of imposing structures such as the cathedrals of Cologne or Palma de Mallorca. During postproduction he overlays the exteriors with details from their interiors. By means of these superimpositions, which are possible mainly due to nature of the medium of photography, the artist creates condensed versions of the churches it took centuries to build. The resulting pictures, which are really transparent, photographic “collages” around the world, convey the aura and light mysticism of the imposing buildings in the form of an icon-like concentrate: „I liked both aggregate states of each space with regard to the people, the inside and the outside. From that I developed the idea of overlaying the external front of a building with its interior. That is how the cathedral picture came about.“10 The large-scale works with their many intersecting, delicate structures and ornaments demand active seeing on the part of the viewer: they need to be seen both up close and from a distance in order to grasp and decode the multiple, simultaneous levels both in terms of their optics and their content.
For his pictures of the palace complex of the Alhambra in Granada Fischer also worked with overlays. In part he made use of original photographs of the structures from the nineteenth century, which then combined with his own shots. As Dieter Ronte writes: “Fischer builds up a simultaneity of seeing, which can only be achieved through an artistic intervention comparable to the multiple perspectives of the Cubists. This simultaneity leads almost automatically to the loss of space in the representation of the photographed object. In doing so, Fischer shows the whole, the undisturbed, the direct view. In the Cathedrals the overlays lead to architectonic congruities, and frequently to contrasts. A door is pushed open to a new way of seeing because the ‘previously’ is as visible as ‘beyond’ … The viewer is introduced to a language of forms from the past through which she experiences diversity, rigor, monochromy, congruence and opposites.”11
Since 2005 Roland Fischer has created condensed versions of modern iconic buildings from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries in the series New Architectures. The designs for these buildings were conceived by famous architects, such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry or Yoshio Taniguchi. Many of these structures made architectural history, for example the German pavilion by Mies van der Rohe for the universal exposition in Barcelona in 1929. This structure was intended to be a prime example for a steel skeleton structure with a fundamentally new spatial experience of interior and exterior due to several external walls made of glass and relatively few load-bearing, marble-clad, internal walls and a few metal columns. The original pavilion was demolished in 1930, leaving only photographic evidence and written reports by contemporaries of this legendary building. In 1986 it was reconstructed at the original site, allowing us to experience it spatially again.12 Fischer shows us only a small detail in his photographic work of the newly reconstructed pavilion: a view of the interior. More precisely, he shows us part of a closed red curtain. At the bottom of the picture, we see a small strip of the travertine floor, which is partly in shadow, partly sunlit. Here and there we can discern whitish fragments of buildings, resembling gauze, on the regular folds of the dark red curtain. The pavilion as such is not visible. Only someone schooled in architectural history recognizes already familiar details of Mies van der Rohe’s design. The title Pavillon is thus an important clue to unlocking the artistic interpretation.
For the series New Architectures Fischer employs the computer for a montage of various shots of the buildings in question resulting in constructs of forceful expressiveness. In doing so, the artist takes certain liberties with the digital montage. As Björn Vedder notes: “Fischer’s architectural photography – and in particular the series New Architectures – stands in the tradition of Avantgarde photography of classical Modernism (including proponents such as Moholy-Nagy or Rodchenko). That movement denounced the mimetic realism of phytography, which was initially conceived o fas being objective, replacing it with a higher-order, occasionally called magical, realism with the means of Modernist painting. These means, which can be found in Cubism, Constructivism and Expressionism, included the dissolution of perspective, the multiple aspects of an object – that a thing could be seen from several sides or from multiple vantage points at one –, the fragmentation or the montage, alienation and many more.”13
Of the series New Architectures the exhibition in Bitburg includes a number of large works: for example the impressive design museum Shalom Holon by Ron Arad in Tel Aviv, the Beijing Olympic Stadium, also known as
the Bird‘s Nest, by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron as well as the House of the Arts in Mirando do Corvo by the architectural firm FAT.
An even greater independent image character than the New Architectures series is in evidence in Fischer’s most recent series, Transhistorical Places, begun in 2018 and ongoing. In these photographic works, geometrical figures, such as colored circles, spheres, rectangular elements and other formations, stand on equal footing with photographic details of Brutalist buildings. The latter overlap in part the striking, colorful surfaces, resulting in completely new spatial constructs.14
All the series by Roland Fischer that are concerned with Modernist and contemporary architecture have one thing in common: they do not seek to depict the buildings, but strive for “autonomous image creation”. These exciting inventions emerge from assembling real and fictitious parts into a hybrid between “painting” and photography.15
Fischer is fascinated by language and writing. This shows, aside from the large TEXT-BILD-Komposition, in many of the works on display in the Bitburg exhibition: to begin with, there is the general point of giving every protagonist of the various collective portraits their names like in the Israeli Collective Portrait. The group photograph of the heads of Israeli students is presented in the smaller alcove of the main exhibition hall on a narrow red wall. Fischer decorated the other walls of the small cabinet with a wallpaper of his own design bearing statements of Israeli passers-by on the Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. The quotes are taken from Fischer’s 2015 film A Normal Day on Rothschild Boulevard, which is shown on a monitor in the same small room. The multimedia installation conveys a synaesthetic impression of the complexity of Fischer’s groups. In some of the personal declarations critical voices express their views on German history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The atrium of Haus Beda houses many sculptures, and some plaster casts, from a variety of historical periods. The space inspired Roland Fischer to a writing-based design. Right at the top of the walls Fischer places his site-specific text collage entitled Vier Frauen with aphorisms by Sophocles, Euripides and Hölderlin. The writing circles the room. The short, pithy phrases we can almost hear in the atrium work like an amplifier of the sculptural content collected there: an auratic attunement to sharpen the senses before entering the house proper.
With his first large portraits and the large-scale conceptual series, that is, from the very beginning of his career in 1980, Fischer belongs to the photographic Avantgarde. The artist underpins this claim to exhibit in museums with perfectly printed, large works. In parallel to Fischer, other photographic artists, in particular the artists of the Becher school, such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, among others, have discovered the large format as a means of successfully engaging in “one-upmanship” with competing painters, who also continually enlarged their canvases at the time. The word in the “competition among the genres” was “size does matter”. In this context it should be noted that the technological possibilities of developing photographs were also expanding rapidly at the time.18
Critics have compared the sober, extremely precise photography of people in Roland Fischer’s early series Nuns and Monks and Los Angeles Pool Portraits to the first-generation Becher student, Thomas Ruff. Fischer and Ruff almost simultaneously work on major series of portraits with serious faces, unadorned, authentic and printed in large formats. What Fischer and the Becher students had in common was that they “presented their pictures in monumental sizes and the entire color palette in the 1980s …. Wide, white margins saw the format of the prints increase even further … The expanded size and the addition of color had a direct influence on the relationship of the viewer with the images. Instead of an intimate close-up view … they demanded a new kind of attention from the viewer since he now had to look at huge color photographs on the walls, as if they were paintings.”19
Fischer’s consistent work in series, which implies a condensation of content, stands in the tradition of countless artists: primarily the aforementioned photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who had systematically photographed factories, furnaces and water towers etc. in a sober, frontal, black-and-white imagery since the 1950’s. They, too, stood on the shoulders of artists working serially, such as the photographers Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander, proponents of what critics called “Neue Sachlichkeit” or New Sobriety.20
Based on new technology and new movements, the generation of photographic artists that includes Roland Fischer and the Becher students freed “photography from the suffocating framework of having to depict reality”, introducing a much wider horizon and increased complexity to the medium. On occasions, objects are being represented with so much detail that the human eye can hardly take it in, or they become so blurred that the photographic subject-matter begins to dissolve into painting. On other occasions, photographs are generated exclusively from data taken from the internet and then artistically alienated. Or photographic fragments of reality are isolated and then combined with other pictorial elements into new, expressive pictures. Roland Fischer has lived through these recent transformations of photography and continues to shape them with his impressive as well as memorable images.

Dr.Ute Bopp-Schumacher is a german based curator and writer
published in: Roland Fischer „Written in an Image“, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld 2022
1 • Translated from: Boris Groys, Das Versprechen der Fotografie, in: Das Versprechen der Fotografie. Die Sammlung der DG Bank, Luminata Sabau (ed.), exh. cat., Prestel Verlag, 1998, p. 29. 2 • The 190 × 130 centimeters, black-and-white portraits were actually printed by hand in a darkroom. 3 • It was for pictorial reasons that the artist chose the Trappists and Cistercians: both orders wear a black-and-white habit and lead a life of contemplation secluded from the world. These aspects benefited the conceptual character of Fischer’s series.4•Hans Belting, Faces. Eine Geschichte des Gesichts, Munich, 2nd edition, Verlag C. H. Beck, 2013, cf. p. 7. 5 • Latin phrase, denoting a reminder of mortality.6•Roland Fischer Chinese Pool Portraits, in: Roland Fischer New Photography 1984 – 2012, exh. cat. Saarland Museum Moderne Galerie, Meinrad Maria Grewenig (ed.), Verlag das Wunderhorn, Heidelberg, p. 56. Bilder der Moderne. Roland Fischer im Gespräch mit Paul Wagner, ibid., p. 58.7• Translated from Björn Vedder, speech at the opening of the exhibition Roland Fischer at Kunstverein Rosenheim on September 24, 2016, online: http://www.rolandfischer. com/eroeffnungsrede-kv-rosenheim-2016/ (accessed March 27, 2022). 8 • Translated from: Joachim Kaak, Von der Unmöglichkeit der Realität – statt eines Vorwortes ein Paradoxon, in: Roland Fischer, exh. cat. Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München (ed.), Wienand Verlag, Cologne 2003, p. 12f.9•Cf. Petra Giloy-Hirtz, Ein Vokabularium urbaner Oberflächen, in: Petra Giloy-Hirtz, Façades Photography, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2nd edition, 2015, p. 189. 10 • Roland Fischer in conversation with Meinhard Maria Grewenig, in: “I do not only think of the individual image, but always of the effect the series has in space as well.” In: exh. cat. Roland Fischer New Photography 1984 – 2012, ibid., S. 28.11•Translated from: Dieter Ronte, Roland Fischer – Fotografie, Architektur, Abstraktion, in: exh. cat. Roland Fischer 2014.12•Claire Zimmermann, Deutscher Pavillon, Weltausstellung Barcelona, 1928/29, in: exh. cat. Altes Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Mies in Berlin. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Die Berliner Jahre 1907-1938, Terence Riley, Barry Bergdoll (eds.), Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York, 2001, p. 236f. Thomas Ruff, too, has produced a multitude of edited, atmospheric photographs of its interior and exterior.13•Björn Vedder, speech at the opening of the exhibition Roland Fischer at Kunstverein Rosenheim, ibid., see footnote 8. 14•Further aspects of these visual compositions are discussed by Björn Vedder in his essay on Transhistorical Places (see this publication, pp. 103-107).15•Thomas Weski, Gegen Kratzen und Kritzeln auf der Platte, in: exh. cat. Sprengel Museum Hannover and Städelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main, how you look at it. Fotografien des 20. Jahrhunderts, Thomas Weski, Heinz Liesbrock (eds.), Oktagon Verlag, Cologne 2000, p. 37.16•See Roland Augustin, Roland Fischers fotografisches Werk und der Strukturalismus, in: exh. cat. Roland Fischer New Photography 1984-2012, ibid., p. 20.17•Translated from: Martin Engler, Die Becher-Schule. Fotografie nach dem Ende der Fotografie, in: exh. cat. Städel Museum Frankfurt, Fotografien werden Bilder. Die Becher-Klasse, ibid., p. 110. 18•Cf.ibid.19•Alexander Alberro, Vom Verschwinden des Nüchternen, in: exh. cat. Städel Museum Frankfurt, Fotografien werden Bilder. Die Becherklasse, ibid., p. 25. 20•Translated from: Jean-Christophe Ammann, Einführung Die erzählerische Dimension der Bilder, in: exh. cat. XL Photography 2, Deutsche Börse AG (ed.), Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2003, p. 10. 21 • Martin Engler, Die Becher-Schule. Fotografie nach dem Ende der Fotografie, ibid., p. 113