Nadine Olonetzky


Narratives of a colourful life

on the photography of Roland Iselin


It was an early evening in December, and I was taking the bus from New York JKF Airport heading towards the city centre, to Grand Central Station. Just like thousands of other people before me and after me, I could at some stage see the lights of the skyline, and they seemed unreal. The image of reality is more real than reality itself, I thought, and now I was on my way from the two-dimensional picture (cigarette advertisement? picture of architecture? journalistic photograph?) into three-dimensional reality, as though I had ended up in a very strange film. This is the experience of a person living in the age of the media, where the world of everyday experiences is at least as strong as the world of images[p1] . Many things are accessible only through images and can be experienced only if conveyed by the media; furthermore, and what we see is more or less strongly linked to or even covered up by images we caught sight of somewhere and somehow which have since been erring between the eyes and the world like delicate, tinted films. Perception is tinged by these images, no matter what kind - the media, art or films - and from the memory of experiences; and yet there is a desire for unadulterated views and reality, for life at first hand as it were, and at the same time a desire for condensation, for accounts of reality, for life at second hand.


Be it in pictures, texts, songs or films, artistic transformation has the power to add vigour and taste to the often drab soup of life, thus making reality come off second best. No matter which of the worlds has the upper hand at the moment, we see real things, people and landscapes, and at the same time consume picture stories of things, people and landscapes in newspapers and magazines. They appear on billboards and on TV, where they meet the demand for up-to-date information and entertainment - often combined as infotainment today – or address our longings and wishes, adding yet another hip object or stylish nuance to the constant relaunch of our own identity.  


Due to the fierce competition going on between television and the print media, due to the image worlds of CNN and MTV, the general oversupply of pictures and the lack of time (commuter newspapers are a response to this development), photo reporting has long changed profoundly; there is talk of a crisis, despite it being impossible to do without information communicated by documentary photography. As a rule, the print media no longer wants and can no longer afford long stretches of images and picture stories that provide greater, in-depth insight into the subject matter at hand. A small number of photos is used to glaringly spotlight the core of the matter, and to add that «taste of reality»1 to the event.


While back in the 1930s photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) managed to make politicians do something against poverty as a result of their awareness having been raised by her portrait of a «Homeless mother, California» (1936) taken for the American ‹Farm Security Administration›, today the belief in being able to change the world with journalistic photography has become minimal, or naive. The pictorial story told by an author who was there on site, who recorded what he found and took home the loot, will firstly change absolutely nothing most of the time and secondly be supplemented with the odd posed scene or stage-managed portrait. The fact that even documentary photography is a construct is nowadays understood not only by proficient recipients – documentary images are viewed with a portion of mistrust and disillusion. Even if photojournalists are at times still glorified, it is common knowledge that a story is also the result of individual circumstances as well as the technology used, that in a pluralist world there is no one and only view, and that the entire picture-story might be posed and digitally manipulated anyway, hence representing nothing of that which it pretends to be, as conveyed in figure captions, for instance.

In the same way, artists in turn attempt to represent the realities of life, and not only so-called visions. They, too, comment on conditions and situations, albeit possibly by means of other visual languages. As documentary photography increasingly began to incorporate non-journalistic genres, stage-managed portraits, still lifes or landscape pictures, art and advertising had long included documentary photography in their repertoire (Andy Warhol, Benetton). One quotes the other, plays with irony, uses established ideas from other contexts purposefully either to attract the attention of certain consumer groups or to provoke a particular statement. Against this backdrop arose the much disputed question of which of these two narrative forms - journalistic or artistic - was better suited to provide adequate responses to events and social conditions. How should we best respond to the world with its many realities, how should we best comment on it, and contemplate on it visually?


Hence, the boundaries of photography as a genre were long blurred when Roland Iselin started taking photographs. Born in Kreuzlingen in 1958, he attended the Höhere Schule für Soziokulturelle Animation in Zurich, which turns out to be of quite some significance in view of his later choice of photographic themes. From 1991 to 1994 he was enrolled in the course of Professional Photography [p2] at the Zurich School of Art and Design, in 1993 he spends an exchange semester at the New York School of Visual Arts, and between 1999 and 2001 he returns to New York to complete his Master of Fine Arts degree. In 1993 he starts on his first major series termed «If you close the door, the night could last forever» which he does not finish until 1997. The setting is Zurich, more precisely the worlds existing in parallel, i.e. nightclubs [p3] and hotels, restaurants or club houses. This is where people have parties, where dances are organised for the elderly, where people play for money or sing to God. Here people celebrate the rituals of voluntarily chosen group affiliation. The sun is excluded in most of these pictures - «Leave the sunshine out / And say hello to never» goes the title borrowed from Lou Reed’s equally melancholic and hungry for life song titled «Afterhours». «All the people are talking and they’re having such fun / I wish this could happen to me / But if you close the door / I’ll never have to see the day again.». Whether it's a tango night or a boxing club, a game of poker, a gay party, the “Sechseläuten” festival, or lunch at the flashy Hotel Savoy, whether it’s a Greek Orthodox procession or members of the Salvation Army praying, no matter how much these places differ, each of them serves as a refuge where its people feel safe and at the same time as a platform for self-presentation. In black leather, net stockings and make-up, in a suit and tie, in an evening dress or traditional costume and uniform – in these carefully chosen outfits a host of different desires, dreams and counter-worlds to everyday life are acted out. Trying out life scripts like clothes! However, these rooms of ecstasy and debauchery are also subject to certain rules. Roland Iselin explores these rules in his intensive colour photographs, focuses on the insignia of group affiliation, on clothes and jewellery, on gestures, and Do’s and Dont’s, thus delivering a visual field study, a kind of socio-cultural review. Free from the belief that his photographs could produce awareness or change, he takes pictures with a gesture of statement. Roland Iselin states comparatively, as he puts it, meaning that he brings a whole range of different social circles and their respective codes of behaviour into some kind of relation, without judging them. In almost all of his photographs, the glaring colourfulness or merry exuberance is quietly accompanied by some form of shabbiness and deep melancholy. In many of them a kind of bourgeois and restrained festive joyfulness or thoroughly ritualized festivity emerges from a black shady background. This is life - not easy, and fun only now and then. Roland Iselin does not shy back from encounters, or even skin contact for that matter, in his work. His view takes us close up to unbridled, hungry life. Sweat shines, clearly visible is the contour pencil’s line on a beauty’s lips who keeps her eyes shut in ecstatic trance. Heads cast shadows, and surfaces, hair, the materiality of fabric, can almost be felt.


At that stage, Roland Iselin was searching for a visual language of his own, for a type of photography that was settled in the present – in colour. At the outset of his career, touched by Nan Goldin's work, also by that of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Louis Hine, and at the same time concerning himself with the advertising photography in magazines and on bill boards, he then proceeds to launch his second series in 1997. Again it is set in Zurich, on Motorenstrasse, where he lived at the time. «Motorenstrasse 14/PLD» – not included in this book – is a documentation of what is going on in that place at that particular time, and also an attempt at consciously incorporating an element of stage-management. After having asked them to come to the photo shoot dressed up as if they were going out and to present themselves in their own way, the photographer - in the role of the documentarist – creates his portraits. So the portrayed will want to display their most interesting, seductive traits, present their identity as corresponding with their most favourable aspects. Iselin sounds out appearance and reality (in fact, quite affectionately), the borderland between documenting what is actually there and what is stage-managed, and the symbols that constitute individuality within a group. «A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed», Richard Avedon (*1923) once said, «and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks. He's implicated in what's happening, and he has a certain real power over the result.»2. In the «Motorenstrasse 14/PLD» series, the people are set in their environment, and their portraits are subsequently made into a visual essay by adding still lifes of meaningful objects, such as make-up, clothes or flowers. Roland Iselin consciously employs the precarious situation between photographer and model. Who is at who’s mercy, who presents (or hides, for that matter) themselves and how do they do it – all this is part of the setting and becomes a key element of the picture.


In «Human Resources» (1998–2001), his next series, Roland Iselin moves away from the places reserved for parties and festivities and private living rooms and steps out into public space. The setting is now New York, and like in Zurich Roland Iselin again focuses on the parallel worlds found in nightclubs [p4] and restaurants, in flats, and in boxing clubs - where the fighting demanded by real (working) life is carried out at a symbolic level - and finally on the New York subway. The term «Human Resources» taken by Roland Iselin from a job vacancy interprets people as commodities. People who work are stripped of their strengths and weaknesses, of their desires and dreams, and can no longer be hurt or sad or have good and bad days. They are merely living resources, sources of expected profit maximisation. They can be employed as required - like tools or machines. «Human Resources» is devised as a photographic round dance with partially documentary and partially stage-managed images from several of his themes taking their cadenced turns: Roland Iselin shows men and women in boxing clubs, for instance. The Hispanics and Blacks, not often Whites, shown hitting a punching bag hard and ridding their bodies and souls of frustration might even be preparing for the mental fight required to get from the very bottom to the very top out there in the real world. The terrycloth bathrobe is soft and blue, as are the boxing gloves, but the look in the eyes is hard, revealing something of the life they have had.  

Another group of pictures shows people who are exhausted from the struggles of working life and the stress of the big city, sitting or lying in the subway bucket seats, sleeping. On the move in public, they are completely lost in their own thoughts, vulnerable in a harsh world that is constantly moving. Roland Iselin combines these sleeping people with portraits of people in their flats. Again, this is about how people want to be seen by others, but this time it is not about getting ready to go out but about recreation, about being in a private, even intimate place protected to a certain degree from the demands made by work and the public. After the struggles of work, after the trip by public transport with all the involuntary eye contacts and physical closeness, people arrive home, switch on the TV, sit on the sofa or on the carpet in their track suit. In all of these portraits, people are embedded into their surroundings, and they look slightly softer in the familiarity of their flats. Yet even in their own flats - these base stations for excursions into and harbourages from public life, where you would feel lost without a sufficient degree of self-dramatisation – even here the theatrical permeates the real.

Since «Human Resources» is also a continuation of «If you close the door, the night could last forever», it also includes pictures of people who go out, and, as with «Motorenstrasse», interiors and still lifes round off this New York genre picture. Again it is life with its intensive colours, its seductive or revolting smells, its roughness and poetry that we are faced with here, yet Roland Iselin who captures these images as a participating observer and takes pictures of strangers as well as friends, keeps a much greater distance as does Nan Goldin (*1953), for instance. She refers to the people she takes photographs of as her «family», lives with them and therefore knows their brighter and darker sides, their habits and cranky ways, she comes as close to them as possible to document their lives empathetically and equally unsparingly. Therefore, Roland Iselin describes «Human Resources» as «a response to Nan Goldin’s work», a response that neither could nor should have been avoided - a kind of resisting reaction to Goldin's celebration of intimacy. Roland Iselin’s view is less emotional.

In New York he creates another series, «surfaces» (1999/2000), which is photographed with a medium format camera, like all his other work (except for the subway pictures which were taken with a miniature camera); the motifs have been arranged in square format as almost abstract groups of colours, shapes and structures. Here Roland Iselin draws up close to the bodies, the camera wanders across the wool of a jumper and across the skin, it focuses on where the frilly blouse meets the skin, on the transition between skin and hair, shows the body's surface protected by leather and the naked unprotected surface, sniffs, as it were, along skin folds and stubbly beards, seams and straps. This detailed view shows the state of being alive, the physical aspect of being, to be something very tender, soft and vulnerable, but also exhibits its ugliness and repulsiveness.


In 2001 Roland Iselin embarks on the «Route One» project. He drives along the old north-south highway from Fort Kent, Maine, in the east of the USA to Key West, Florida. His object of investigation is not only people’s leisure time (and how it differs from that of people living in big cities), but also the locations chosen for this (and how these differ from those chosen by people living in big cities). Again he creates a photographic round dance, where portraits of people take turns with portraits of houses – in fact this is also a typology of American buildings from north to south. Again, the photographer’s control over his pictures is undermined by him asking the models to present themselves as they think is suitable - as long as they don't smile - and so turns the element of self-portrayal into a means of creative design. The people’s faces and bodies, and the houses’ facades that change from north to south, tell of a life led, of necessities and pragmatism, of a sense of beauty and the urge to shape their lives, of convictions and desires. Women, men and children have a concentrated look on their faces, some reveal only a hint of a smile, making them their own kind of «Mona Lisas of the country road»3 , but all of them are aware of who they are and proud and embarrassed about it, some more openly, some in a more reserved manner. Roland Iselin keeps a certain distance or discretion, shows houses with their surroundings, tells the story of this road movie with and through his pictures. James Agee’s (1909–1955) and Walker Evans’s (1903–1975) book «Let Us Now Praise Famous Men» (1941) forms a reference point for the idea of presenting pictures without figure captions next to them. Evans’s pictures had been published without captions, without stating a date, place, or name, they were devised exclusively for seeing, similarly to «Route One», albeit here, the figure captions have been included in the book. It is not so important exactly when and where those magnificent Afro-American ladies, the man in yellow bathing trunks, or the girl wearing glasses and a ballet dress were photographed, nor what their names are and what jobs they have. They are the reason for a picture, and in a supra-personal sense, they stand for a life that is possible today, for aesthetics that are possible today, for the expression of a view of life, for a style brought about by society. The only way to make these pictures more expressive as a report on society would be to add text. Figure captions, explanations, background information. This way, however, they are photographs among photographs in the globally circulating stream of images, and so they join the many voices of the choir that tells the stories of a colourful life. 


His latest series, «Members» (2002/2003), shows very clearly that Roland Iselin is not a promenader with a camera, who goes for a walk taking pictures on the spur of the moment, but that in fact all his work is based on creative concepts and specific questions. This photographic survey shows members of a whole range of different Swiss associations, participants in a timbersport contest and a hit parade, for instance, members of a crossbow shooting club, of the American Dream Club or the Scirocco Club. They have all been photographed in their complete outfit or wearing all of their warrior’s equipment together with the object of their adoration, pleasure or challenge, in short, with the insignia of their club membership. They do not stand isolated surrounded by white, like in Richard Avedon’s purely black and white portraits. Roland Iselin has created more of a contemporary typology, in colour, tying in with August Sander’s (1867 – 1964) project «Antlitz der Zeit – Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts», which shows all kinds of people, from blue-collar workers right up to industrialists, with tools or clothes typical of their profession, and represents a mirror of the times.  


Right up to the 1970s, most professional photographers work almost exclusively with black and white photography, colour is more or less frowned upon. Photographers such as Paul Outerbridge (1896-1958), for example, or Evelyn Hofer (*1922), who is hardly known, are some of the exceptions. Yet with William Eggleston’s (*1939) legendary 1976 exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the increasing demand of the print media for colour photography, the latter and even colour portraits start to gain acceptance. Not sophisticated abstractions in black and white are what is sought after, but closeness to the colourful, often trivial and vulgar life and its power and poetic features. This is what Roland Iselin is working on too. He not only combines documentations of what he sees with the creation of image ideas, but also brings up the possibilities of the photographic medium to convey from different viewpoints – and to narrate in such a condensed manner that makes the images stronger than the reality they were taken from. A means of observing them methodically is repetition. In photography this method corresponds to the series. Not alone a coherent single picture, but much more so a succession, i.e. narrating in the form of sequels, accounts for the effect and provides the foundation for comparison which in turn is one of the prerequisites of information societies: what has been said where and how – or seen and represented for that matter – and what could then have what meaning, what significance? The fact that artists use means of documentation, and documentary photographers use means of stage-managing, moreover, the fact that hybrid forms of narration comprising several visual languages, or images and text, exhibit several viewpoints of the same object under investigation reflects today’s reality. Institutionally and in terms of aesthetics, in-depth photo-documentations and long-term projects have become part of today’s artistic photography anyway. Institutionally, since – as in this case – it is the private or state-owned cultural foundations that promote their emergence and no longer the media. Curators and publishers, i.e. exhibitions and books, also communicate the results to the interested public, in other words, distribution is done by those sectors traditionally reserved for art. In terms of aesthetics, since many photographers, including Roland Iselin, regard themselves as artists and not as reporters, and since both documentary and artistic photography are concerned with phenomena of everyday life as well as signs and traces frequently overlooked and describe and comment on them by visual means. So when you are on a bus from New York airport to the city centre, when you actually see the skyline and recall pictures of the skyline, you will be able to juxtapose and contemplate on objects, their appearance, their shapes, colours and meaning. Or dream of them melancholically and hungry for life.

1 cf. Urs Stahel, Reportierende Fotografie und ihre Medien in: «Weltenblicke», Offizin Verlag 1997

2 cf. Klaus Honeff, Das Porträt im Zeitalter der Umbrüche, in: «Lichtbildnisse – Das Porträt in der Fotografie», Rheinland Verlag 1982

3 as a modification of W. J. T. Mitchell’s coinage who termed the nameless peasant photographed in «Let Us Now Praise Famous Men» by Walker Evans a «Mona Lisa of depression». See also Brigitte Werneburg, Dokumentarische Reflexivität, in: «Weltenblicke», Offizin Verlag 1997