Régis Durand 1992

Régis Durand


With the series «Los Angeles Portraits»,
exhibiting it on several occasions with the previous
series «Nonnen und Mönche», Roland Fischer makes
possible a more precise interpretation of his work
and the overall project which serves him as a basis.
In my opinion, this project may be approached from
two main perspectives (which obviously do not in-
tend to exhaust the question, rather simply sketch
out the general framework): on the one hand the
theme of presence of a subject and its possible re-
presentation in the present; and on the other, the
theme of photographic image within an artistic pro-
ject in the 90’s.

On the subject of portraits of monks and
nuns, I showed how Roland Fischer seemed to want
to capture a quality of presence beyond visible ap-
pearance (1). This quality bore a certain resemblan-
ce to what Roland Barthes termed the air and defi-
ned as „something moral, which mysteriously gives
to the countenance the reflection of a vital value;
and which therefore made it possible to go beyond
the photographic cliche» (2). Barthes‘ nostalgic and
idealistic point of view, perfectly accepted within the
formulation itself of these observations, made him
search, through a photograph, for the meeting with
its subject, and going even further, with that sub-
ject’s numen -that exorbitant something which in-
duces body to soul-reaching, in some cases, a kind of

I believe that Roland Fischer, in an operation
which is full of ambigous subtlety, succeeds in ma-
king visible this „process of initiation“, maintaining at
the same time the very strictest critical distance. In
fact, the being itself (the raison d’ètre) of the monks
and nuns represents the path towards a superior
value, a driving of all the instants of the body, and of
earthly life towards the soul. By photographing
them from the front with the greatest precision, in
the majority of cases with the face framed to the
maximum, Roland Fischer made that tension to-
wards presence appear, that mutation of the body
towards a being there which would not be just a
simple meeting, a simple testimony, but an opening
up to the spiritual -a kind of presence-absence
which is a much richer experience than the fascina-
ted recognition of a having been there.

And Oliver Clément, the theologist who com-
mented on the work on monks and nuns, was not
mistaken when he observed that these faces are
the image (the metaphor) of a step towards the in-
visible, towards silence, of a renunciation of appea.
rances more than of their fascinated celebration (3).
But at the same time, Roland Fischer subjected the.
se individuals to a rigorous formal protocol which ex-
cluded any reabsorption of the images in their mani-
fest significance (religious or spiritual).

What appeared then was a question mark
over photographic function in the history of repre-
sentation. This question mark referred to the histo-
ryof portraits in painting and photography, their ca-
pacity to group together all types of unconnected
signs and sum them up within an identity. It also re-
ferred to photographic projects, exactly as Atget in
particular had declared them, of finding a method.
not exemplary, linked to the greatest precision, a
way of opening up to things themselves (4). Roland
Fischer was incidentally not undertaking a docu-
mentary or sociological type of project on monks
and nuns, not even a sample of these human, spiri-
tual vestiges, who can be considered as being in dan-
ger of disappearing just like the industrial architec-
ture painstakingly documented by the Bechers.
From Atget’s project (and in some ways also San-
der‘) he rescued the use of series, but without mea-
ning to overdo them.

What was appearing, rather, was the priority
of photography’s function as a recorder, liberated of
all expressive associations, within the framework of
a precise protocol (in which some parameters could
nevertheless vary, such as the distance between the
subject or the frame, but more as counter-evidence
than to really experience the validity of the principal
choices). While Atget walked the streets of a city unti-
ringly and dreamed of restoring the density and tota-
lity of what has been experienced («everything
which had potentially occurred in a place»), Sander
Sketched out a general social typology of his era and
Roland Fischer gave the photograph a more limited,
more specific task. The photograph was to bear wit-
ness, in some way, to the fact that what is real is
already photographic -which constitutes one of the
possible definitions of the most modernist project.

What do we mean? That the faces of the
monks and nuns, for example, are already in some
way framed for the photographic image (because
of the wimple or the hood); and that the portraits of
Los Angeles are already cut out by the surface of the
Water which differentiates them from the body and
gives them a uniform background. And examinino
more deeply, that this formal predetermination
(which, on the other hand, is not recognized in such
as evident manner in the great proliferation of signs
which surround us) is in itself the sign of the pre-
construction, of the pro- jection, of an individual iden-
tity which attempts paradoxically to affirm itself,
through what precisely rubs it out. The photograp-
hic operation consists, then, of a «simple» recording
of the photographic nature of what is real, which
manifests itself in this way. Because in postmodern
society (the society of the «integrated spectaculan
according to Guy Debord), the image is the ultimate
form of all reality. All countenances are image – the
composition of lines and signs for another’s expres-
sion. To photograph what is already image means
producing an effect of repetition, of superposition,
which does not cease to seem strange.

This can be seen in the religious portraits, in
which the faces seem to slip slightly out of the posi-
tion and advance towards us. And even more so in
the «Los Angeles Portraits»), since in these the over-
determination due to religious reference has disap-
peared. And the image which reaches us, in spite of
its sharpness, seems to float in an uncertain space
as if it were a hologram. It is a fact that we can see
they are predominantly women’s faces, white and
probably middle class. And without doubt we could
interpret this politically, and begin a game of recons-
tructing social identities arising from the represen-
tation which the subjects transmit of themselves.

One could also compare this work with An-
drés Serrano’s, for example, and his recent portraits
of «Nomads»: those abandoned by American society
who Serrano magnifies in splendid photographic
portraits. Serrano devotes to these people the at-
tentive, lyrical and fervent look of the amateur ent-
husiast towards the exotic (in his own words) as
could Curtis with regard to the Indians he photo-
graphed. To this we would have to contrast Fis-
cher’s distance (for whom both the monks and nuns
and the people of Los Angeles are strangers, alt-
hough some degree of trust must have been esta-
blished, at least during the photo session); and the
apparent suspension of feeling which characterizes
his photos – the waning of effect is the expression
used by Jameson to describe one of the characteris-
tics of the postmodern condition in a well-known ar-
ticle (5).

But Roland Fischer’s intention is not of a so-
ciological nature, a fact which accentuates even mo-
re the absence of any descriptive reference (clot-
hes, objects, etc. ). We find ourselves with absolutely
naked faces, perhaps more naked than any other
portrait in the history of painting. The device seems,
in fact, to be almost surgical, a clean section of the
surface of the water, uniformity in exposure and
framing. Therefore the face is left. And, while the
monks and nuns faces seemed to offer themselves
to view as a symbol of the tensions between the
flesh and the spiritual, as a place of movement and
battles, the face of Los Angeles people offers itself
just as it is. How is not offered -it seems to have lost
the metaphorical or symbolic relation which made it
a vehicle, an intermediary towards something else.
He offers himself, and also advances slightly to-
wards us. But if his look seems to invoke ours, he
does it with the disquiet of an act of recognition.
These portraits are naked, not because of what
they allow us to see of a body, but because of the ut-
ter stripping to which they subject themselves.

Then, all the elements of the mask, which is
the face, make themselves visible: make-up, hair
style, features against any possible damage to the
base (not only age or abandonment, but also any
specific expression which would reduce the effigy
to what is anecdotic in a moment of humour, or a
trait of personality which is too individual). We find
ourselves faced with empty effigies, due both to ne-
cessity and nature, reduced to the nervous invoca-
tion of Another’s look.

The tradition of the portrait showed, through
time, the notable persistence of specific codes in the
representation of particular identities. It also sho-
wed that individual identity only existed in the re-
cognition and acceptance of a whole sediment of
cultural and social conventions. Nowadays, recogni-
tion like this has become something problematic,
and the individual now only exists as an isolated enti-
ty, like a floating particle in the postmodernist hy-
per-space. Roland Fischer has been able to show
this, thanks to thorough reflection upon the sub-
ject/image relationship. In particular he has been
able to return to the photographic medium its total
ability to record, far from all parasitic expressive-
ness, but also far from the indifference and superfi-
ciality which had become, for many artists in the
80’s, its predominant features (6).

Régis Durand, 1992

(1) «Roland Fischer: une transparence passionnée», in Art
Press 132, July-August 1989, and «Photographic portraits: the
floating and signs», catalogue from the exhibition «To Be And Not
ToBe», Barcelona, 1990 (both retaken at «La part de L’ombre. Es-
sais sur l’experience photographique», Paris. Editions de la Diffé-
rence, 1990).
(2) «La Chambre Claire», 1990, p. 168-169.
(3) «Visages de silence», Roland Fischer catalogue, the Mu-
seum of Modern Art of Paris, 1989.
(4) The expression belongs to Walter Benjamin, «Petite
histoire de la photographie» in «L’homme, le langage, la culture»,
Dancel, 1971.
(5) Frederic Jameson, «Postmodernism, or The Cultural
Logic of Late Capitalism», New Left Review, 146 (1984). Published
in Spanish in Zona Abierta, 38, January-March 1986, p.71, under
the title «Postmodernismo: la lógica cultural del capitalismo
(6) This article has been published in Artefactum n.40 of

published in: EINSAMKEIT, Un Sentiment Alemany, Fundacio „la Caixa“, Madrid, Barcelona 1992

Régis Durand is a french writer and critc. He has been the artistic director of the Printemps de Cahors Festival; Director of the Centre National de la Photographie and Director of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris