Interview Norbert Bauer and Roland Fischer

Conversation between Norbert Bauer and Roland Fischer
in the kunstbunker, September 24, 1995


Norbert Bauer: It was rather early in your career – and quite uncompromisingly – that you decided upon photography as the medium of choice for your artistic expression. From the very beginning, you have been equally unequivocal about the portrait as your preferred genre within that medium. What motivated these choices?

Roland Fischer: The portrait form emerged more or less autonomously from the matrix of my photographic works. Between 1979 and 1982, I created a series of black-and-white portraits featuring entirely unknown individuals as well as very prominent personalities up to the Emperor of Japan, whom I photographed in Tokyo in 1982). This series of faces was a first attempt to achieve a kind of imagistic abstraction through the portrait, at first without imposing any particuliar influence. I shot each photograph from about the same perspective, leaving the various surroundings and backgrounds as they were. Large format prints followed almost as a matter of course, as a natural means of arriving at the pictorial.

Norbert Bauer: To paraphrase Tilman Osterwold, the fine arts frequently employ the face as a metaphore for what is to be recognized, for the human capacity to perceive what we experience. You often talk about your portraits as conceptual works. Why, for example, did you choose to photograph nuns and monks, people who evoke such strong images in us? What roles do abstraction and conceptual ideas play?

Roland Fischer: Each of my works begins with a formal imagistic notion. This time the idea was to isolate and frame the face. With the monks and nuns I was able to exploit an already existing reduction, namely the black and white planes of the Cistercian monastic garment. Those planes provided me with pictorial masses that I could freely “shift” and “arrange”. It seemed to me that this subject was predestined for photographic, imagistic treatment, not only because of its visual aspects, but also because of its contents. Monastic daily life is strictly regimented and formalized, as well as the spatial structure of the monastery itself is an architectural expression of this regimentation and formalization. The goal is – as far as possible – to achieve inner freedom, to abstract oneself from the material plane, and thus, ultimately, to accomplish something that also plays a role in arts. It was here that the first color – namely, skin color – quite logically came into play. The rest of the picture remained predominately black and white.
Later, in the “LOS ANGELES PORTRAITS”, I carried the idea of reduction one step further. In those photos I sought to contain the human bust within a monochrome plane, thus emphasizing the contrast between two widely disparate formal principles. On the one hand, there was the monochrome color (blue or black), i.e., a plane with an almost mathematical character. On the other hand, those monochrome planes contrasted sharply with the natural and contingent form of the human face. The resulting tension between form and freedom is a relationship, which is very important to me.

Norbert Bauer: Portraits have a long history. For me portraits today inevitably evoke ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, there is the extreme externalizing (marketing), e.g., in personality shows; on the other hand, there is an almost equally extreme and complete denial of public access, the total shielding of the private sphere. For you personally and for your work, what is the significance of this radical “mediatization” of the individual?

Roland Fischer: First of all, I would like to say that what interests me least about the photographic medium is its “documentary”, its illustrative aspect. Naturally, that is possible with photography, but it is being done by others. I’m solely interested in the “image”. As I have often said, in those of my pictures that include a human face, only half of that picture is actually a “portrait”. After all, the face it-self occupies only about fifty percent of the pictorial field. The other half is no less important to me. Therefore I’m not interested in showing how many different individuals there are. Rather the question I want to ask is: What is this, the individual.

Norbert Bauer: The portraits have an enormous presence, especially as dispayed here in the kunstbunker; that presence creates a tremendous sense of distance, of aloofness from the depicted individuals. When one stands opposite these pictures with their formal and abstract elements, when a photographed face becomes a mirror of ones own self, then the immemorial play between action an reaction begins anew. Each image invites one to embark upon a powerful interaction and communication with ones self.

Roland Fischer: I believe that it is very important to consider how we actually read pictures. In my opinion, a pictorial work reveals its content through its form, although both form and content are simultaneously present. What is form really? Form seems intimately related to the visual. When one further analyzes this relationship, one might say that seeing and form are ultimately synonymous, that form is engendered by holistic seeing. What you refer to as “interaction” and “communication”, I would describe as “visual thinking“.

Norbert Bauer: I would rather like to return once more to the contents of your works. As a result of your concept, these pictures are severly formalized; and that formalization, in turn, places extraordinary emphasis on the faces, on the “life”, as you call it yourself. Conceptual aspects are very, very strong. All the physiognomies are quite composed, one could say that a strict order has been imposed upon the faces. This, of course, evokes other images in us. For you personally and for your artistic work, how significant is this relationship, this striving for order, this tension between inner and outer worlds, between inner and outer realities?

Roland Fischer: As I see it, human existence is situated between freedom and determination. By analogy, and as far as the pictorial plane is concerned, I’m also interested in, as I mentioned before, the similary dynamic relationships between freedom and form, between freedom and the obligations entailed by our integration within a larger whole. In my view, these relationships aren’t dualistic, they are in dialogue. Consequently, the notion of transparency, the various ways these two principles fit within one another, is very decisive for me. After all, we are not entirely matter, nor are we entirely idea. Perhaps pictures can play an important role here: Through images, and in images, we can comprehend opposites, grasp complex relationships, and ultimately fathom both the interior and the exterior in their entirety.

published in: Roland Fischer, Kunstbunker Nürnberg 1995