Michael Reisch

Forms and Models


The photographic world of Michael Reisch is devoid of human beings. It is purely a world of forms. But as these forms appear neither in nature as pure forms nor in our culture, the human being crops up again in this world willy-nilly, and not least as a photographer. And since the forms, for their part, always occur in the plural, the photographer makes series out of them, each one of which is devoted to a particular kind of search. The series are open, that is to say, the search is never necessarily over and there is always room for further additions as well as variations. Moreover, Michael Reisch leaves gaps in the numbering of the individual groups of works to allow for any connections – like cross references – that may possibly crop up between them, thus at the same time emphasizing the systematic character of his photographic search. Indeed, Michael Reisch’s photographs have something very experimental about them, for they document more the process of searching than the finished or final results and also open up the process rather than close it. One might say that they are visual records of a search for forms in its intermediate stages. The search continues: in the old series or in new ones.

Forms and models

The group of works numbered 0/ marks the beginning or, to be more correct, the zero point of the photographic search. This is where everything began. They depict forms of human settlement, industrial installations, stretches of lawn, high-rise apartment blocks and also trees – all of which are one thing above all else: models. Here, too, human beings have already disappeared and left behind them their dwellings and utopias like baggage too bulky to take with them. While in Le Corbusier’s (in)famous “Plan Voisin de Paris” there were still remnants of the former buildings of the Rive Droite among his gigantic high-rise tower blocks, as witnesses of a past era, so to speak, tower blocks of a similar size and shape stand here all alone, in the midst of nature – memorials to a world that has been built by man but can exist very well without him.ereH Here they are, totally isolated: models of man’s annexation of nature, a playful game with forms that not only rise out of nature but also seem to rise above it.

In an essay on the district of La Défense on the outskirts of Paris, penned around the middle of the 1970s, Peter Handke wrote that it ought to be declared a prohibited area, as it openly and blatantly revealed the secrets of technocracy. Michael Reisch’s series may be understood as a visual inventory not only of such – thanks to photography – blatant architectonic forms but also of still unspoilt terrains vagues that patiently await their development. He uncovers them in the manner of a photographic archaeologist of the present and, in the midst of civilization, transports them into a post-apocalyptic world without human beings. It is an uncanny world, and yet one that does not seem unfamiliar.

Natural forms

The world with which Michael Reisch confronts us is one that has been processed in many different ways. Even the landscapes, which he shows and which were actually created only by photographic means, once bore the traces of human beings, traces that have now been carefully and neatly removed. Indeed, this photographer does not capture traces – which is what photographers traditionally have always done – but rather erases them. This seems, at first glance, to be an altogether modern gesture. In his Reader for City Dwellers, for example, Bertolt Brecht expresses the maxim “Erase the traces!” But while it is the habit of modernism to replace tradition with notions of a modern world, Michael Reisch goes a step further: he erases not only the traces but the human beings as well, revealing a different form of nature, that of a post-romantic world that has also left behind the modernist promises inherent in the 0/ group of works. Such are the landscapes of his series 1/, for they make no attempt at a romantic re-enchantment of the world but rather celebrate its de-enchantment. The landscape – so art history tells us – exists solely for the sake if the human being. Nature needs, in order to turn itself into a landscape, the subject, the human being, who finds himself reflected in it. It is with nature, whether wild or cultivated, that man can always identify himself. Indeed, it was the purpose of landscape painting to transform nature into a human space, a space in which man could find himself, his essence and his whereabouts. But Michael Reisch has now driven the subject out of the landscapes and also prevented every possible comeback, even if it is just in our minds. By the same token, the human being no longer has a place in nature, or, to be more precise, has only one place, namely that of the photographer. The latter, for his part, makes a critical (in the best sense of the word) observation of the world. He goes through its metamorphoses, playing with every conceivable appearance and disappearance of forms. His subtle, intricate work with these natural forms serves, on the one hand, to banish the human being from the imagined paradise of romantic nature, such that he cannot return, not even through contemplation, and, on the other, to rethink nature completely – and not least as a photographer. It is a photographic nature that is here the theme, that is, the nature of a photography that points far beyond nature itself.

The formless

The strange feeling of disquietude that overcomes us when looking at his photographs certainly has something to do with the fact that in many cases the places and views are familiar to us and yet in the photographs they seem strangely different. The Matterhorn is – or was – the Matterhorn, but, as we can see from comparative images in the internet, in travelogues or on calendars, it has been completely reprocessed: reformatted, to use modern parlance. It is now an image in its own right. Its forms are clearer, more concise, purer than in nature. Coming very close to the basic geometrical form of the triangle, it is the very matrix of any form of image composition. The photographer Michael Reisch has assigned it – whatever it is – to two groups of works, thus underscoring their mutual referentiality. While series 7/ goes on to play with other landscape models, distilling from nature circular and linear forms, ovals and ellipses, and thus taking their formal abstraction even further than in series 1/, the other group of works – series 10/ – focuses on glacial views both abstract and representational, depending on how we see them. Seen as surfaces that through their two-dimensional planes evoke spaces, creating forms from lines, they are virtually representational depictions of glaciers, ice fields or mountain ridges. But if we succeed in reversing the imagined creation of space, mentally transforming the three-dimensional illusion into the two-dimensional picture plane, what we see reminds us of a completely abstract painting, a work of Art Informel. The glacier now becomes the picture space and the flank of the mountain becomes the support for signs and symbols that have no other meaning than what we read into them.

Michael Reisch had already begun this search in nature for the non-geometrical in his series 9/. It shows what happens when liquid freezes and movement crystallizes. The freezing of the world, of forms of life, creates other, new forms that cannot be reduced to spheres, cones and cylinders.

Forms through light

This exploration of the formless has its counterpoint in series 8/. Here Michael Reisch pointedly renounces the representational in every form and no longer uses photography as a means of generating an image but merely as a means of reproducing it at the end of its process of creation. The photographic process serves, as in some of Reisch’s other series, only for the production of photographic prints. But while photography no longer has anything to do with the actual capturing of an image, the works themselves nevertheless explore what is in fact the very basis of photography and what gave its name to the first magazine in its history: La Lumière (Light). Indeed, light is the essence of every phenomenon – not just of photography – and no things, not even life itself, can exist without it. Here Michael Reisch explores what one might call spaces of light. While they are totally abstract inasmuch as they are not in any way representational, they do in fact give rise to forms, though in a strange way. Light already takes shape as soon as it leaves a digital trace on the sensor, which can then be processed further, and this seems to be the result of Michael Reisch’s search. The photograph explores the nature of light and gives it expression in the form of, well, forms. The resulting images are almost hallucinatory in their effect – forms and spaces of light that irresistibly draw the viewer into their dizzying vortex.

Folded forms

Series 14/ is a logical sequel to this search: each work begins with a purely two-dimensional plane as the picture space, which is then provided with a scale of grey shades from white to black that cause the two-dimensionality of the picture plane to fold either inwards or outwards. Although all shades of grey are used, this is not always discernible. The work on the image begins where there is nothing for the eye to see. With the aid of the computer, the two-dimensional surface can be folded to create the illusion of space and hence three-dimensional form. The folding of space – a phenomenon familiar to us from astronomy and architecture – has now become one of the forms of perception of photography. But it is a perception, not least in the case of the photographer himself, that is active rather than passive, for Michael Reisch works in much the same way as a sculptor, creating sculptures out of light that are deceptively three-dimensional. That we perceive and recognize three-dimensional folds and forms at all is explained by the effect of the gradations of grey or, to be more precise, by their gradual disappearance in the white glare of the now computer-generated light. While series 8/ still played with the basic constituents of photography, black and white, Michael Reisch’s series 14/ now hardly needs any black for its folding and forming processes. Traces of white and just a few light-grey shadow-forming shades are all it needs for its space folding effect. Space is here the basic form from which all emerging forms are captured. And once they have been captured, the entire picture plane and, with it, the entire picture space themselves assume a completely new form and structure.

Forming nature

Whereas series 8/ and 14/ used light and space in their play with formal abstraction and concretion, series 12/ explores matter itself. White has now receded completely into the background, indeed it merely serves as the background for the strange, not to say alienating and disquieting, forms that dominate the foreground. They awaken associations with rock formations, asbestos fibres and even traces of decay and destruction. Bizarre forms tower up against a white photographic sky. Here, it would seem, matter is at once prima materia and ultima materia . It is both from this matter that all forms emerge and back into this matter that all forms change when their end finally comes. The beginning and the end, the matter from which things are formed and the matter into which they decay are of similar shape and structure. Here, in this series, Michael Reisch brings together two aspects: firstly, his fascination with post-apocalyptic landscapes, which confront us – photographically and hence imaginably – with man’s total disappearance from the realm of things, and, secondly, his explorations of the origins of all forms. It is the photographic world, the world of photography, that makes us realize how closely the processes of destruction and disappearance on the one hand and those of becoming and changing on the other are in fact related. Art and nature, too, here find their way to one another in a completely different way.

Forms and Models
"Landschaft" (Landscape), 0/010, 2004
Forms and Models
"Kühlturm" (Cooling Tower), 0/028, 2001
Forms and Models
"Landschaft" (Landscape), 1/021, 2002
Forms and Models
"Landschaft" (Landscape), 1/012, 2004
Forms and Models
"Landschaft" (Landscape), 7/021, 2009
Forms and Models
"Kraftwerk" (Power Plant), 0/026, 2001

Text: Bernd Stiegler, Michael Reisch’s explorations of the photographic nature, 2013

Posted: February 2018
Category: Photography