Andreas van Dühren: When you’re looking at a photographic work – not necessarily a single picture – what would you regard as reality, distinguished from any subject (in the sense of sujet), and what would you then see as the image?
Barbara Probst: Reality, subject and image are all part of a photograph, like three skins, one on top of the other, which initially appear not to be distinguishable from each other. But I would like to try to separate these three skins, so that each can be defined and located in its own right. The element of reality that we imagine we are seeing in a photograph is in fact no more than a faint afterglow of reality. Reality itself is actually completely detached from the photograph. A photograph never depicts reality, it only depicts a view of it. There’s an infinite number of possible views, and each produces a different result. At the same time, reality itself is completely independent of these views. It exists as that which it is. And I’d say that in our reality-subject-image system the image is directly opposite reality and far away from it, on the side of perception. The image results from our gaze and everything associated with the gaze: seeing, recognizing, evaluating, categorizing. This also includes all the associations and cross-connections to our memories, fantasies and emotions, which can give the picture a different meaning for every viewer. In other words, the image needs us for it to be an image. It is the image within which all the individual color and light values of a photograph become something more or less identifiable. And in the same way that the image is the outcome of the viewer’s subjectivity, the subject is the outcome of the photographer’s subjectivity. Viewpoint and angle, lens and exposure time and many other decisions at the moment the shot is taken all have an effect on the subject. Logically the subject has to be somewhere between image and reality, because on the one hand for the viewer it promotes an image with all its facets, on the other hand it is beholden to the reality that lives on in it as an afterglow.
AvD: It seems we have no choice – we have to imagine reality as a given, which is as such independent of our perceptions and of us (which is almost reminiscent of the origin of the universe: we have to suppose some kind of a beginning, we have to have a starting point somewhere). But there can also be no doubt that we assume reality to be a given only on our own account; exact measurements require instruments, constructed by us, and an effort, on our part, to take readings and to understand. So reality is the more or less temporary product of a convention (that is, of accordance and agreement): in the case of a measurement it is a theoretical basis that allows to interpret the latest result; in the case of everyday observations sufficient numbers of witnesses and a certain, accepted use of language underpin that agreement: that the object I happen to be pointing at or talking about – and claiming that it is shining – is in fact the sun. The distinction between reality and, let’s say, an image therefore seems to be fluid and only graspable at some arbitrarily chosen point, where something is fixed: basically something that we call “reflection”. The difference is made by some choice, be it spontaneous or calculated. My decision to say “sun” excludes other possibilities – any formulation I may additionally use referring to the sun (outlining or commenting it) tends to individualize this object. Evidently the origin of image lies in this choice: it is a detail.
BP: Well, if we’ve already got to the origins, I’d say the detail must have preceded the image. Or to put it another way, the image is a logical consequence of the fact that human beings basically perceive details. At any given moment human perception is naturally limited to a more or less small detail of the world. An image reflects precisely this premise of our existence. It is a detail. That’s perhaps also the reason why we humans have always made pictures – from the bison in the caves at Lascaux to Spiderman in the cinema. And why we almost manically want to surround ourselves with these pictures.
AvD: The natural and the manic … Anyone walking into a room (which is itself already a predetermined, manageable detail of the world) straight away involuntarily selects just a few fields from an initial flood of equally valid possibilities and gives these fields a significance of sorts. The limitation of what would otherwise be overwhelming allows that person to act, to find a certain orientation, to have some sense of sovereignty. If a personal disposition prevents that reduction from kicking in, that person will be exposed to multiple impressions that are more than anyone can cope with; the need to identify connections is in danger of leading to a form of paranoia. In special cases this could result in a creative appropriation, but in most cases the danger overwhelms the individual and has an entirely detrimental effect. So when you refer to a tendency for people to surround themselves with (more and more) pictures, isn’t this increased picture production (given that it is true) in fact the individual’s response to an overpowering suggestion of impressions in its environment (particularly as a result of technological advances, which more and more hinder that kind of healthy reduction)? Then we would also have to ask whether this tendency reflects a widespread removal of restraints (to the point of illness, complete debilitation), or whether it points to a potential that could increasingly be of benefit to that “individual” – in the sense that even more people are finding a way to creatively appropriate that environment. And the next question would concern the artist (who ought also to be mentioned in quotation marks): is the artist thus tending to become unimportant or all the more important?
BP: Perhaps it would be useful at this point to distinguish between the conscious and the non- conscious production of pictures. It seems to me that the need of individuals constantly to document their surroundings is a life force, of some kind, that is very deeply rooted in the human unconsciousness. The reflex-like triggering of the IPhone camera turns our own personal world into a snail-shell of images, which we can retreat into when necessary, with our focus on the past, and from which we can communicate with the outside world as well. Bearing in mind that these days a lot of human relationships – including relationships where the participants feel deeply emotionally involved, even in to the point of being love – only happen via Internet, it is clear that images can create a world for human beings in which reality has to be a disappointment. But if we bring consciousness into play at this point, along with skepticism and the ensuing distance to images, then we arrive at a model in which it may be that images and reality can be united in peaceful harmony. But with the best will in the world, I don’t find widespread evidence of any such awareness in society. I only see it in those small niches occupied by artists and other mavericks – which confirms that their task is all the greater today.
AvD: “At this point …” It strikes me that I – perhaps rather stubbornly? – am constantly returning to a particular point (or aiming for it), which would perhaps be better described as a dividing line: between image and word. And this is where it already gets difficult: should it in fact be image and text – is that the correct dichotomy? I remember reacting with a certain skepticism to Godard’s comment (more than thirty years ago) that words still reigned supreme and the image was being stifled. It seemed to me rather that it was language that was disappearing … But to come back to the tricky distinction: Naturally words only gain their power by evoking ideas; but just as “naturally” (and this raises the question as to whether this is already the moment when malign manipulations set in) most images these days only acquire their intriguing-provocative effect by what we might call – as neutrally as possible, to start with – “verbal application”. When I say “these days”, I mean that a visual impression always has an impact, if it can be described as natural in so far as it has not been prepared in some way (I see a tree; it is real; I can walk up to it and touch it, and all the properties of that tree that I can perceive are in keeping with my knowledge of trees etc.), in that first moment, even without some kind of voiceover providing a caption, the first moment consists of: “I see a tree”. As soon as I progress beyond that first moment I enter a realm wherein the visual impression becomes increasingly artificial and any ensuing reflection more and more resembles a visual impression that could just as well have been prepared. So what is called “image” is either/both determined by my own ideas (memories, knowledge, fantasy, praxis and so on) or/and by those ideas that someone else has imbued it with – that’s to say, the person who made it. From that moment on the visual impression is influenced by the mode of representation – whatever significance, relevance, references, connotations, ever freer associations etc. attach to it. Instead of a tree I see an image of a tree; every image of a tree is thus the image of a tree that has already been seen (differently), that has passed through the realm of ideas into that of representation. (This convoluted description would not change even if I were to replace “tree” with something I was seeing for the first time; because I don’t have to recognize it that first time – the first time only corresponds to that first moment.) Everything that happens after the first moment (of the not-prepared impression) is interpretation resp. representation – and is up to the intelligible (I admit I’m using the word “intelligible” in some idiosyncratic way: contrary to the philosophical convention I believe that sense perception can also participate in the – supposedly pure – intellectual, even that this is normally the case; but that’s going too far now). So “at this point” language sets in, and it seems to me that “these days” the image has accordingly become more dangerous, because it is itself increasingly in danger, that is under the influence of falsified language, which itself has a tendency to falsify. Without engaging in a cultural-critical digression – what was described above as verbal application (that’s to say, it’s always already semantically charged) is increasingly exposed to a manipulation of that “evocation of ideas”, just whenever something else is posited instead of “tree”, or because the realm of ideas (the chain of connotations) is interfered with in such a way that the random-remote almost inevitably short-circuits with the actual. You could say our media world demonstrates a tendency to Pavlovian symbolization – such that, for instance (and in light of current events) “naked” is taken to mean “sexual”. But, as for the creative potential of that point: I believe (and every visual artist – which I am not – lives in this belief) in the power of the image, which does not immediately fall prey to the omnipotence or prepotency of language or the purely verbal disposition of language. In other words, every visual artist believes in a visual language (which would mean: significance before semantics and montage beyond grammar) – and is fundamentally aware of its existence in every moment of his praxis, since he is creating something never yet seen (in that form). However, on that basis the artist is like anyone else – in the moment of any first perception, whose originality now seems to have become uncanny to many people. In that sense a conversation about trees is also politically relevant.
BP: Perhaps the important thing here is not so much a belief in this visual language as exploring our capacity to see at all in this originality – to ask whether a “natural”, “not-prepared” impression of the world is even possible nowadays. At first sight this seems very difficult and only a theoretical possibility or a philosophical tour de force. This may be why belief comes in. Is it possible, despite our grounding and conditioning to arrive at that level of impartiality in our seeing? This belief certainly plays a part in artistic practice. However, I think that in order to arrive at something “never yet seen (in that form)”, the artist has to search through all the layers of the deposits that have settled on the objects we look at and that distort our view of them. You yourself touched on these deposits a moment ago. They come both from our own, internal ideas and from outside, from social conventions and imprints. To stick to our tree, the work of the artist consists in subjecting the tree to a kind of X-ray that leaves the deposits outwardly untouched and legible, but that also shines a light right through them and renders them invisible – so that the tree comes to light as tree.
AvD: This actually brings us back to an old question, which has been discussed throughout art history from Leonardo to Valéry – more or less explicitly referring to the concept of contemplation. As ever, it is important to put the question correctly; in my view it shouldn’t be: “How can we return to a state of immaculate perception?” Put like that, the question answers itself: We can’t regain a state of innocence – which we only talk about because it has become a term, therefore lost to us. That artist’s belief is not about some untouched domain, in which the tree would already look different to us, but rather – in the sense of what you were saying, if I understood you correctly – a particular attitude, almost a technique, that allows one to perceive the tree as a mere phenomenon (according to the German expression Erscheinung). This does not mean that there is a true phenomenon as such, which somehow could or should be exposed, as if the object were true in a particular form and only the acquired means, that we use in order to recognize and understand it, were falsifying it; if anything – also in the sense of what you were saying, but expressed somewhat philosophically – it is that our perception does not immediately exclude that phenomenon again, simplified as a consensual-unambiguous object, transposed into a discourse, in which we remain capable of frictionless action. Some of our “acquired means” have precisely this purpose and are indispensable; without them we would be unable to communicate. The artist (i.e. the visual artist, whom I am only deploying here as the representative of a general potential of the human being) evidently have the skill to include himself with his perception and the phenomenon – at least for moments that need not be meditative, that can also have some repartee. “Skill” already indicates that this is also an acquired means (since we certainly don’t want to either romanticize or diagnose the artist), which is only preferred while the others, that conventionally serve the process of identification, are productively repressed. We don’t even need to rely on statements by artists; their works prove the point: an originally comprehensive intuition, that is intrinsically structured (without immediately being converted into that which is conventionally commensurable) leaves the phenomenon in its impartially separated properties; intuition, itself striving to turn into a figure, orders those properties according to the same structure. This is very much an analytical process, only such analysis functions not in terms of logic but formally; it is synthetic, only its aim is not a concept but an image. And works of art prove this simply by virtue of the fact that beyond their own specific logic it is impossible to discern any viable reason why Vermeer accentuated a particular area with a special yellow (which is also true of the fifth of the objects that Donald Judd called Suite of five Chairs #84/85 in multiple colors of Finland Color Plywood). The fact that we talk about “works” also proves that this original intuition was transposed into action, a technique was transposed from – let’s say – momentary disposition into methodical activity; and here we see coming into play all that which ensues in any kind of reflection, only artistic reflection is determined by a particular praxis, in which an incommensurable conception is translated into a professional conception and proceeds to a realization that is accessible to the viewer on the same level on which the artist’s reflections were formalized and became intelligible – which is why one person can talk about it with another: about the influence of Vermeer, a strange shaft of light entering the studio, a material problem of some kind, the ambition (maybe the gallerist’s) to finish a series of twelve in time, or the queasy feeling in one’s stomach one afternoon … One might say: the need to understand shared by us all is expressed in some examples of the species not in customary-consensual designation; it is realized – in the sense of an objectification – as a figure. This figure, by the way, has to be a work of visual art. But to stick with that one for the moment – I admit that I’ve perhaps given an over-elaborate description of what you meant by “X-ray”. My intention was to show that what we both recognize as a skill, attesting it to the artist, is in fact a possibility that everyone can activate – or could, if our present world were organized differently. However, as things stand at the moment, anyone who wants to be an artist is already conditioned in the years preceding any form of professionalization in a way that – almost in terms of a new totalitarianism – contradicts everything artistic (in the sense that you or I still understand it). Or is that conditioning (the ever earlier socialization of a person’s sensibilities) capable of forming the technique of perceiving something as a “mere phenomenon” – in a way that at least I am yet unable to recognize?
BP: Not long ago I had the chance to see a Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. He just came to mind at the mention of conditioning. I was rather amused to see how much Koons is in love with the materials and the forms he uses and how little distance he has to them. Apart from being a smart businessman, it’s as though he is just thrilled by the shininess and colors of his sculptures and pictures. And if we were to develop that notion in the present context, we might come to the conclusion that Koons, as the quintessential American, is exploiting his conditioning in the American wonder-world of consumerism, that he is celebrating it. Koons – like many other artists these days – is not interested in techniques that are about the manifest appearance of things. He is instead interested in the surface appeal of things, and in his best works he succeeds in revealing the full spectrum of precisely this appeal. Take his Rabbit for instance, where every possibility of an appearance of that rabbit in itself congeals in its surface, in which we are even reflected ourselves. Koons presents this mechanism as a mere phenomenon! That would be my response to your question as to whether conditioning can help us to fathom appearances and phenomena. However, in our model I see the artist as someone in whom the conditioning of his/her formative years is reversed, which then provides a lifetime’s worth of energy. And I’m not talking about some esoteric notion of finding oneself, perhaps it’s more about some findingtheworld, a lifetime of clarifying one’s view of things and circumstances. But anyone who is in contact with young artists and art students will know only too well that this model is in fact on the point of being retired.
AvD: “… where every possibility of an appearance … congeals” is perhaps in line with the “phenomenon in its impartially separated properties”, and this ultimately leads to the problem of representation: as a reduction of the interactive perception-phenomenon process to the modality of momentariness, an actuality of the parts in their interrelationships (proximity and distance on a par with each other, like arbitrary and significant, dream and history, figure and structure, and so on), as though every representation were the frozen moment of a chance geometry, constructively reproduced – which perhaps tempts us to believe photography is a paradigmatic medium of some kind, and which immediately raises the question as to how we should then understand cinematography: as an extension/fluidization of that moment, which requires a more elaborate montage? But to come back to Jeff Koons – which I admit I’m always glad to do; and for that reason just a bitter aside: I’m afraid the generation succeeding us can only dream of the education and training of that artist (or, with your permission, of a Barbara Probst). But after all we two are engaging in this dialogue because we have faith in the exceptions.
BP: And this is where we can identify the differentness of photography and film very nicely: It is, as you said, the modality of the moment that makes photography what it is and that constitutes the crucial difference between photography and moving images. In photography the moment is rigorous and fundamental, with no before and no after. It is the viewer whose immediate reflex is to speculate on a before and an after and thus to read a narrative into the photograph. But any such narratives are by definition unverifiable. They are groping in the dark. Because the only thing that is certain is what is shown in the image of that fraction of a second (as the “actuality of the parts in their interrelationships”) when the shutter was released. Uncertainty surrounds any story concerning the context of that fraction of a second. Film is entirely different: a film is a chronological stream of moments. Each moment is contextualized by the moments around it. By virtue of this chronology the narrative necessarily resides within the film and is quite clearly legible; in a sense, film does not need the viewer in order to constitute a narrative. Quite the opposite of photography, in which the narrative only exists if it is read into it by a speculative beholder.
AvD: Here it gets critical. That the modality of the moment would constitute photography is rather an abbreviation which seems to me to be distracting us from the real issue. It is an equation that immediately makes sense to anyone (and that no one could object to in the first instance). But in actual fact there are two equations: one describes a principle of any representation, the other describes the universality of a particular application – which wondrously coincides with the former principle on a metaphorical level. Most attempts to categorically distinguish between photography and film only relate to the most prevalent forms of each. However, photography (which is the name generally given to the single image) is not necessarily restricted to a fixed moment in time and discharged from all narrative; film (a sequence or stream of images) does not necessarily acquire coherence through the passage of time nor is it always narrative. On the contrary, I’d say that photography is the medium for both the former and the latter (in at least four possible combinations): a photograph by Cartier-Bresson is just as much photography as a film by Bresson; my need to read the former can lead my powers of imagination into narrative, whereas the latter may not allow a narrative to unfold. It seems to me that the crucial factor is not time or non-time (which divides photography into two realms) but rather the taking or a non-taking (which separates photography from other forms of representation). Furthermore: representation, which is of necessity (also) a taking, and representation, which is in no sense a taking. The temporal or historical (not necessarily narrative) inevitably insinuates itself into the former in connection with the subject, in every other medium it is intrinsic to the idea of the subject. In the former medium the subject is at the same time a given (even it if just the manipulated light –this also is there), in the latter it is a given plus imitation resp. application (paint on canvas). As I see it these distinctions are effective for every kind of photography (fixed or moving images) and also for every other technique. It is a distinction between representation through a taken plus representation, and representation through representation. I believe it is necessary to describe these things in such an obstinately formulaic way (as primitively as possible); otherwise one would not come down to cases. For clarification one should add: Photoshop is not photography but painting; photography can also be painting. And: whatever the viewer reads into a work depends not on the medium but on the conventions associated with a medium, which change with the medium and/or can be manipulated in that medium.
BP: The reason why I’m interested in this simplification, yet in differentiating photography and film is probably my own work with photography, which seems to have a lot to do with film, but which is also very clearly detached from it. In the shift from photography (as a producer) to film (as a viewer, since I don’t make films myself) it seems to me that the aspect of the moment in photography and of the temporal continuum in film is always determining. I understand your clear elucidation of the problem, but nevertheless I’d still like to go back to it once again, albeit without wanting to insist on my previous proposition. I’d like to suggest another aspect, from the point of view of a producer of photographs or film, that is to say, the possibilities for photographers or filmmakers to influence, to shape or to determine the way in which the narrative is read in their respective mediums. In a sense photographers only have limited control over this. Of course they can avail themselves of all the possibilities of representation in order to ensure the photograph appears as they want it to. But they have limited control of the narrative that is read into the photograph, because the merest fraction of a second is generally not representative of the continuum that it has been snatched from. Because filmmakers are able to show more than a moment from a continuum, they have a better chance of determining how a film is read by the viewer. In Hitchcock’s movies every second ensures that the audience will understand the story exactly as the director intended. But even in the case of so-called non-narrative, quasi-abstract films like Warhol’s Empire State Building the very fact of the running time (or even the progression of twenty-four photographs or frames per second) means that the director has much greater scope to influence and control the way the film is read, since the action (even if it’s just the flickering light of the Empire State Building) is defined frame-by-frame for an extended period of time. But if a photograph by Cartier-Bresson seems to turn into a film (which I can very well understand), that film only unfolds in the viewer’s mind. And presumably every viewer will see a different film in his or her mind’s eye. As to Photoshop, I think it’s also important to take into account the fact that this program was developed from the methods and techniques of photography. It offers the user techniques that nineteenth-century photographers would have been delighted with, because they were engaging in similar experiments using analog processes. Collages, multi-exposures, retouching and much more. In a way Photoshop has been around ever since photography was invented, just as an analog technique. There was a very interesting exhibition on that topic at the Metropolitan Museum: Faking it/Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. So the question, “is this still photography”, has been around just as long. And that’s also why it is so difficult to draw the boundaries, to say when something is not photography any more and has turned into painting and vice versa. But at the same time there are plenty of unequivocal examples, such as Jeff Wall, who I’d say is very clearly a painter.
AvD: Maybe – and at the risk of getting totally carried away – I should take that a stage further and add one more thing: the photographic image is inevitably a reflection of something that is given (regardless of any manipulations either beforehand or afterwards), that is to say, it is a record of something: the non-photographic image is only more or less dependent on the given, however it is utterly dependent on a concept, on some before and after, whatever these may be. A photographic image and idea can be identical, not so a non-photographic image and idea. Of course there is always some material circumstance that comes into play – à la Francis Ford Coppola: “The emotion of film is in the emulsion” . . . although that particular bon mot dates back to the ’70s. And some pedant might point out that an idea (in a painter’s mind) is also a given. The difference is simply between a tree, standing in front of me, which I am photographing, and a tree in my imagination, which can be my source of inspiration for all kinds of representation; and of course it’s clear that during the process or after the exposure I can do all sorts and that a representation in keeping with my imagination can produce a deceptively similar (for instance, photorealistic) image of that tree. (And to return to Photoshop one last time: as I understand it, this form of image manipulation is not necessarily restricted to photographic originals: if you use Photoshop to manipulate a photographic reproduction of Guernica – which has pretty much come to be regarded as a template for how our world works – then the painting is the original, the photograph is only a vehicle. The item being manipulated is a file, whose content can be sourced from any technique.) Perforce, in my capacity as a layman, I’m an ideologue in disguise: I am interested in the relationship between the image and reality.