Conversation with Paul Wagner


Images of Modernism.

Roland Fischer is one of the pre-eminent international photographic artists. His first portrait project Nuns and Monks earned him international acclaim and a solo exhibition in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris as early as in 1989. His career as a photographer began at the age of fourteen when his uncle bequeathed him his darkroom.

Mr. Fischer, looking at the works of your series Façades the first impression is that of purely graphical works. How do design and photographic art converge in this instance?

The conceptual pair reflects the ambivalence inherent in the medium of photography very well: on the one hand its indexicality, that is, the possibility to produce an incomparably precise likeness, and on the other hand the existence of a photograph as an independent piece of art. In the series Façades I have arranged the individual image in such a way as to bring out both aspects fully while making them oscillate constantly before the eye of the viewer. In this case design is involved insofar as the surface of an office building is of course a piece of graphic design.

Where do the roots of this project lie?

In Los Angeles. I lived there during the 1990s to realize the series Los Angeles Portraits, the so-called Pool-Portraits. On the side I began to develop an interest in the surfaces of the city, a relatively natural development if you spend time in Los Angeles. City of Quartz by Mike Davis had been published and Baudrillard had investigated the urbanity and semiotic codes of Los Angeles. It was, for example, about the endless boulevards, divided by regular blocks, that consisted in an infinite repetition of the same architectural elements. That was what fascinated me then. We mounted a tripod on my Toyota pickup and crisscrossed the city. Thousands of shots were taken from the moving car.

However, it was only in 1997 when I had got an invitation to work in China and took some photographs of the first Chinese skyscrapers’ large walls on the Shanghai Island of Pudong that I arrived at a pictorial solution. The façades of these buildings were like photographic “Ready Mades” so that all that was left for me to do was to select what to put in the frame. I wanted to call it “China’s New Skin”. But since it became clear fairly soon that this form of urban change was part of the wider process of globalization that had begun several years previously I decided to implement the project on a global scale. That decision led me to travel to all the relevant metropolises in the world. If the trends of globalization were reversed by the current political developments, which is not something anybody should wish, I believe, then Façades would probably become a visual portrait of a particular period in history.

That was the political side of the project, as it were. From a photographic standpoint the conceptual rigor of your procedure is striking. Does this clarity provide the freedom to concentrate on the implementation?

Actually, I have always developed a concept before even beginning to think about how to implement it. For the Pool Portraits, for instance, I had the idea to depict the human bust using a stark contrast between the bodily part and the monochrome blue of the surrounding water. That made for relatively complex technical demands since directing the light and avoiding reflexes on the surface of the water necessitated building gigantic structures, which I partly ordered from the movie studios. I could not realize that project in Germany because the attempts with local pools, such as on Lake Starnberg with friends, were constantly thwarted by the weather. Then, as I said, one day I flew to Los Angeles were conditions were simply perfect: in particular the permanently blue sky as well as the ready availability of private pools.

This was the early 1990s and thus still the age of analogue photography, meaning that in principle the biggest expenditure took place before pressing the shutter release as later retouching was strictly limited. Today, in the age of Photoshop, postproduction is taking up more time than anything else involved in the process.

Pool Portraits enjoyed a sequel. How did that come about? 

That was 2007. That year I had rented a studio in Beijing. It was the time when China was in the middle of the boom. People had a lot of catching up to do, to party, to earn money, to engage in consumerism. That gave me the idea to repeat the project of the Pool Portraits there, focusing on the individual during that stage of major social upheaval. The result were the Chinese Pool Portraits, which I did not, however, shoot outdoors but at film studios in Beijing and Shanghai where pools were constructed and staged, using numerous reflectors and spots to recreate the Californian daylight. It was also the time and place where I first employed a digital Hasselblad. That enabled me, among other things, to control what I did on a monitor without delay. Regardless of how you take photographs, however, the end result is always a print on classical photographic paper.

That does not really sound like documentary photography

For me it was always more about the image than about the portrayal, the representation. That is also the reason why I consider images to be part of visual thinking, which is precisely non-linguistic, narrative, depicting. I do not mean that to be apodictic in any way. Rather, it merely describes my preferred use of the medium of photography. Of course photography possesses an enormous spectrum of possible applications that is, most of all, connected to its inherent capacity for documentation and thereby for the transfer of information: from travel photography to science photography, fashion, advertising, news etc. In the 20th century more and more artists have availed themselves of the incomparable options photography has to offer for collage, installation and conceptual art. We should not forget, however, that photography has only been a fully-fledged member of contemporary art for the last 30 to 40 years…

That was when the meaning of photography began to change?

It triggered the process which might be called a paradigm shift, namely that we have become increasingly aware of the pictorial aspect of the photographic image, that is, detached from what is discernible in the photograph. By the way, the large format plays a significant part in this: previously photographs were known more or less exclusively in the format that fitted into albums and books – which reinforced the habit of trying “to read” an image. By then, painters had long since moved on to large formats.

This formal liberation then set a lot in motion as far as photography was concerned?

Initially, people were awed by the format, by the liberatingly large surface of the picture. The question “What is depicted in the picture and where does it come from?” lost much of its former importance. This did not, however, remove the ambiguity of the medium. It still affords both possibilities: to represent something or to be pictorial, to exist as an object of perception. When I had realized the first works in the Façades series I recognized that this was an ideal project to bring the inherent ambivalence of photography to a head. For what you see in that series is on the one hand a real representation of a building in some city and on the other hand a self-contained picture that no longer needs to refer to something external. The sign had detached itself from what it designated. What I have always liked about the pictures of the Façades is this visual dissonance that makes you ask: is this a picture that reminds me of color-field paintings or is it a photograph of a building?

Many viewers have art historic associations with the Façades

People kept telling me: this reminds me of Vasarely, Cruz-Diez or Agam; that recalls Concrete Art, Zero or whatever. So I thought: they do have a point because the architects, who ultimately designed these buildings, studied art history, among other things. That is, the images of Modernism exist in the collective consciousness and from there they diffuse back into the façades of buildings. I take photographs of the façades and turn these into pictures that, occasionally, end up in a museum.

A kind of cycle of art

When the extension of the Lenbachhaus in Munich was completed I took a photograph of the façade by Norman Foster. Today the resulting picture is part of the Lenbachhaus collection. So the exterior shell migrated to the inside. It is a case in which the cycle succeeded perfectly.

first published in: „LUST AUF GUT, Heft Nr.113, Kunst und Design“, Republic of Culture, München 2018