A Conversation between Barbara Probst and Johannes Meinhardt

Johannes Meinhardt: It seems to me that we should start with the conditions inherent to photography. In contrast to paintings, photographs are assumed to inevitably contain a believable picture of reality. This perceptual belief is tied to the presence—in space and time—of what the photograph shows; i.e. that something definitely took place at a certain time and in a certain place. Your work, after all, essentially refers to time and space.

Barbara Probst: In my work, both the time and place of the exposure inevitably connect the images of a series, because all of the images of a series present different views of the same place or event at the same moment. That, precisely, is the fundamental principle of the Exposures. All pictures really have to come from absolutely the same moment, so that the pictures are connected to one another and each can be viewed and reflected upon in the context of the others in the series. [The simultaneity of all photographs in a series is obtained by a system in which each of the cameras is connected to a radio wave receiver. By pressing the release button on a radio wave transmitter, a signal is sent to each of the receivers, which release the cameras simultaneously.]

JM: This means, in descriptive terms, that you generally take two or more shots of exactly the same situation at a certain point in time. These shots are taken from different angles, which may be very close to one another but may also show extremely disparate positions. In that way, you subvert a basic assumption about photography: that a photograph presents the view of a given person, the view that this person projected through the lens at the moment of the exposure. Yet you subvert that by assuming many viewpoints, many viewing angles, many positions at the same time, positions that engage one another and literally—at least in many of your works—perceive or record one another.

BP: Yes, all of these perspectives then coincide in the eye of the viewer, which puts him in the awkward situation of having to make sense of them. Either he takes on the challenge or he does not. If he does, he will perhaps try to find out where he actually stands, perhaps he will try to figure out and reconstruct the different perspectives that converge in his viewpoint; perhaps he will then connect the images by virtue of their inherent relations. And maybe he will be able to imagine a sort of three-dimensional reconstruction of the situation. That is to say, he will tend to proceed analytically, exactly like I do when I conceive the works or plan their execution.

JM: So the viewer performs a number of mental operations in relation to the space. Essentially, he is drawn to analyze and then synthesize his experience: first he constructs a nexus or a crossing of perspectives by establishing the viewing angle of each individual shot. This means the viewer himself becomes the nucleus of multiple views from different points, and that he is present at all of those different points at the same time. On another level, this enables him to mentally construct the entire spatial configuration, since he is no longer tied to a specific viewpoint but rather comprehends the spatial relationships and the relations of the views to one another. So he can imagine this scene from a bird’s-eye view.

BP: Or he can view the spatially reconstructed scene in his mind from all angles, like a sculpture. I think the double portraits, the twofold double portraits, confront the viewer with a clear challenge to find his own standpoint. Two cameras are trained on two people, each of whom is looking into a different camera. The two cameras are positioned very close to each other. There is only a very slight shift in the cameras’ views, almost as it would be with a stereoscopic camera. Yet in this case there are two individual devices, each of which then attracts the attention of the people to be portrayed. One looks into the camera on the left, and the other looks into the camera on the right, and that results in two images that look very similar but are very different, because the very neutral, emotionless expressions of the people portrayed produce different effects in each of the two images. Here the standpoint of the viewer is clearly disjointed: the subjects are gazing at him, and now he must actually decide where to look and from where to withdraw his gaze. The work, then, is not just about the viewer’s standpoint but also about his gaze and his choice of where to look.

JM: That is why simultaneity is so decisive in your photographs: the main point is not so much the fact that the objects represented are multifaceted and thus call for different approaches to the medium of photography. The point is rather that the photographs generate a type of relationship between the observer and the persons observed. This relationship is a power relationship. It is also a relationship between body and machine. And this relationship, in turn, is what is being observed. This leads to further shifts in perspective so that nobody, not even the viewer, can be sure whether he is not also himself the object of yet another view of the situation.

BP: Yes, that is the ideal outcome, when the viewer suspends his disbelief to the point of seeing himself as a participant in the scene. There is in my work a kind of feedback between the photographers, who can be seen in the pictures with the cameras in front of their faces, and the viewers of the pictures. For what the photographers see at that moment is in many cases represented by another picture in the series. Thus the viewer ultimately sees what all of the photographers have seen, but he himself is in turn the object of observation by the cameras that look at him from the pictures. That reminds me of Dan Graham, whose work I also studied for a long time, although it was ages ago. But he too dwells on that notion of looking and being looked at. His work raises questions that concern the awareness or nonawareness of seeing and of being seen. And the viewer, to Graham, is always an integral part of the work. I am most interested in that as well. One consequence of that is that my works are always relatively large, that they themselves encompass a space that is sometimes similar in size to the room in which the cameras were positioned. The viewer must, in that case, move around the exhibition space too in order to take in all of the pictures and look back and forth among the pictures.

JM: If I start reenacting in my own body the multiplicity of the individual viewing positions, then it involves, of course, the corresponding spatial relationships. There are not only scale variations, such as close-ups and long shots, but you also frequently adopt different viewing angles from different heights, for instance from the very top or from below. This steers the viewer to position himself in a real space in relation to the pictorial space, which can be felt quite strongly. Someone who mentally reconstructs the entire spatial situation assumes a completely different attitude than someone who reenacts each of the individual, very different positions in his own bodily space. In a sense, the viewer jumps back and forth in his real space: into the distance, into close proximity, up, and down.

BP: When the work is installed, it unfolds in space and often moves across corners. Sometimes it moves across two or three corners and thus really circumscribes a space, which actually almost reflects the positions of the cameras as they stood in relation to the object. For they often completely encircle the object—but it is not as if I always build the installation in such a way as to have the pictures reproduce that correctly, not at all, no.

JM: Now I would like to turn to the question of time. What interests me particularly in that regard is the temporal status of the photographed situation. Your photographs often raise the question of whether a point in real time was recorded so that the photograph functions as a snapshot. Or is it a staged moment set up for the photograph? Or is this even a moment of stillness that was captured as a pose, a tableau vivant? Whether that tableau was arranged by you or by the actress or the model is, in that case, not the decisive question. In your photographs it is often impossible to decide which of those three possible relations to time and to reality prevails. I believe you formulate that in the sense that the scenes are meant to be as neutral as possible, as illegible as possible, in the sense that they are not narratives, that they don’t tell stories, that they do not open a path to any causalities but rather remain as impenetrable as possible.

BP: Many works, actually, are thoroughly staged because, among other things, it is rather difficult, in entirely practical terms, to set up seven cameras to shoot an unstaged situation and then release all the shutters at the right moment. But there are also many works that show a staged scene embedded in an everyday situation, with the result that you cannot distinguish between what is staged and what is not. But that is actually true of any photograph.

JM: Undoubtedly every photograph is already a staging of reality. [Roland] Barthes actually once wrote that photography was much more closely related to the theater than to painting. Many of your works give the impression that they might be showing a reaction of the man or the woman photographed, a reaction to their being observed. Yet it is almost impossible to tell whether that “reaction” is deliberate or merely an expression of contrived patience or discomfort. There appears to be in one instance a blank gaze, in another a more physical response or even defiant resistance to being observed. Is this a pose? Or are these expressions merely the execution of a scripted theatrical event?

BP: Yes, that is precisely my intention, to keep what happens indefinable. It would be completely alien to me, for instance, to use props that would make the situation much less ambiguous. If I put a pistol in the model’s hand, he will immediately be the criminal with this or that purpose, and he will be just that in the perspective of every one of the cameras. But if I have a person who makes a movement that is indefinable, if you cannot say whether that person is dancing or resists being photographed, or anything else, then the situation is so open that I can actually make anything out of it, with my cameras surrounding that person. Then I have the greatest possibilities for interpretation. With one photograph I can make a defensive gesture out of it, and with the other photograph I can turn the person into a dancing figure. That is why I am actually always looking for poses . . . well it isn’t only the poses—it is also the clothes, which should carry as little meaning as possible, or even the situation in and of itself, which should also carry as little meaning as possible. Every photograph, after all, is by nature narrative, and I try to reduce that narrative element as much as possible, to make it opaque and ambiguous.

JM: That, then, would be the fourth of the fundamental aspects of photography that you demonstrate. First and second, it is clear here that photography refers both to a specific point in space and to a specific point in time. However, it is only because your approach reveals and highlights these facts explicitly that we can easily perceive them as self-evident. Third, there is a power relationship between the observer and the person observed. This is explicit in the reaction people may have when they are being observed; and many people today react more strongly to a camera than they do to somebody’s gaze. The fourth point is that the veracity of what the photograph shows cannot be verified: I do not know how serendipitous or how intentional the content shown is. I only know that it happened, or, to be more precise, that that frozen moment did exist as I see it. Whether it was created for the photograph, whether it was actually merely discovered and fleetingly glanced at, or whether the found event was re-staged, is something that I do not know. Let me put it differently: here the fact that the photograph itself does not speak is demonstrated. The photograph does not know what it shows and does not tell what it shows—it always speaks only on the basis and by means of its context. To the extent that you pare down the context as much as possible, nothing remains; what remains is only that disconcerting emptiness.

BP: That reduction to the minimum, to the empty gaze, to the vacant situation, stems, of course, from my dilemma: in order to do my work, I have to photograph something. For my very first work, I sought out a situation on a roof and used myself as a model. Back in those days, that was a convenient solution. It was the first experiment with the Exposures, and it involved twelve cameras. On a high-rise roof that night I took a jump, which was also completely ambiguous as an action. That first twelve-part work then helped me determine more specifically how I would proceed. After that I pushed on in the same direction with a few models I selected. And I keep using the same models over and over. I am not at all interested in constantly presenting new faces in my work. On the contrary, in the course of my career I have tried time and again to reduce the subjects. What I am interested in, after all, is not what is represented but how it is represented, the potential and the effects of representation. My purpose is to examine what photography can produce out of what was there. Thus I try to use the same models, the same clothing, the same poses over and over; I try to go back to the same places and hone in on an ever-shrinking space in which I can carry on my investigation. I believe that the smaller that space is, the more precise I can be. I use the models, the clothing, the poses, the places like building blocks that I combine in ever-new configurations. What I have is like a box of building blocks from which I help myself, since I have to photograph something, after all, in order to be able to think about photography and perception. I really could not meaningfully develop that work in any other medium; not in film, because it cannot show the evidence of one specific moment that I examine; even less in painting. This is because all of it has to do, of course, with that grain of truth that is inherent in photography and holds my work together.

JM: Walter Benjamin speaks of that peculiar grain or moment of reality, of contingency, which burns through photography, as it were. That essential aspect becomes quite evident in very many of the photographs, where you introduce some elements that are absolutely contingent, fleeting and uncontrollable in time: the sun or shadows moving, smoke rising . . .

BP: Soap bubbles.

JM: Yes, exactly—these aspects actually have a direct connection to real time, to the fact that real time cannot be controlled and to the contingency of what is happening.

BP: Yes, I actually use the objects in order to connect the images still better or more clearly, so that they signify the moment. For the most part, those are pictures in which the models sit or stand still, and then I try to introduce a fleeting or transitory element that is significant of the moment in all of the pictures.

JM: But we know, don’t we, that it cannot be staged. You can only try . . .

BP: You cannot stage it exactly as you would like to—you cannot get the smoke to rise just the way you want, and the soap bubble will not be as big as you wish, or as small—yes, that’s true. There is a great deal of randomness involved in the process, a fact that I gladly accept, the same way I accept the mistakes when they happen. I did a project, for instance, one summer evening on a roof with the sun very low, where several photographers photographed one another. Then I understood that those “mistakes” occurred naturally. Because the sun is low, it hits the lens in such a way that it always causes reflections. And that was what happened. The pictures were full of mistakes, deliberate mistakes. And precisely those mistakes, of course, take us back to photography as such and to the conditions of photography. The mistakes are the interesting part.

JM: That was the very thing I meant, that irreducible contingency, that burning through reality is after all one of the absolutely essential, basic aspects of the photograph. Of course, most people treat photographs as if they were just pictures carrying some meaning, saying something, communicating something about reality—all of that is untrue, of course, and that is, after all, what you show, through a range of different steps—that all of that is untrue.

BP: In the beginning, I considered ways to show that even more clearly or perhaps more insistently by completely renouncing a pictorial language and pictorial ideas of my own, and instead reconstructing photographic icons in my pictures and then connecting them to one another through the moment in which the shutter was released. But I decided against it, because every picture would have become so over-determined and so heavy. The more open the pictures of a series are and the closer they come to our memories of something that we already know, that we have already seen; and the more they lead us toward a memory, the more they can refer to one another. One picture, for instance, takes me in the direction of the happy world of advertising. Another picture sends me in the direction of film noir. That vagueness leaves the pictures relatively open and able to communicate with one another, and that is, after all, the point of the work. For it is not about the individual images; it is not about ways to judge the individual pictures, whether they are good or bad . . . that is something completely irrelevant to my work. The interplay among the pictures is what is meant to be experienced from the start.

JM: When considering the memories evoked by the individual photographs, I did not have the impression that they were only about photographic genres or styles. With many of them, I had the impression that it was rather something like an entirely general, relatively neutral, anonymous memory, something that [Christian] Boltanski, for instance, has focused on. Anyone coming from a specific era and a specific milieu and a specific society has grown up with a comparable repertoire of photographic images, quite similar in their basic types.

BP: I am thinking of Cindy Sherman, for instance, who in her Untitled Film Stills cleverly did not reenact specific movie scenes either. The film stills actually recall shreds of memories culled from movies; they tease us with riddles. But the fact that none of them is an accurate re-creation of a film still is interesting, because it keeps the picture open. But I think with Cindy Sherman it is again quite another matter, because she also brings in the notion of the self-portrait and connects all of her works to it. I would say that my pictures, in contrast, are more like keys to common memories.

JM: Personal memories or memories of images?

BP: No, memories of images—images of the most diverse sort, images from television, from advertising, from family pictures, from snapshots, from botched pictures, from all the pictures that exist. I am interested in all the pictures that exist. In the end we are dealing with those pigeonholes we have in our heads, where we have deposited what we have seen and recognized and categorized—and that is what my pictures refer to.

JM: This is actually hard to overlook, since in many of your series it is clear that you introduce a very wide range of image types. Obviously, a view from above and a view from below create completely different impressions, and the choice of color or black and white and even different degrees of graininess and other material aspects of the picture create very different affective and subjective impressions or moods. It is nevertheless evident that the scene is one and the same, so that everything that causes the mood variations in the exposures directly results from the conditions inherent to each situation. And it has perhaps been one of the key insights of conceptual photography since the very beginning—as in the work of [John] Baldessari, for instance—to point out that photography somehow creates its own subjects in the first place?

BP: This is where we come to the familiar discrepancy between photography and reality. In my work, this discrepancy is highlighted by the fact that I produce several interpretations of a situation at the very same moment and that, when I install the work, I make them refer to one another. Those reciprocal references then make it possible to read these interpretations as merely the result of the photographers’ intentions, predilections, or abilities. Thus what has actually happened or what has been photographed, that is to say reality, becomes completely irrelevant. Sometimes I imagine this process as though my pictures were standing there like a facade, and the structural support behind them had vanished. Reality has vanished; only the pictures are still standing there as a facade. Which is once again something that applies to any photograph, but I would say that my work makes it evident that this is what is happening.

JM: The concept of the facade may be useful, since for some time now you have quite explicitly been utilizing photographic backdrops. You have used these backdrops as a complement to your approach, involving models, clothes, and locations in a variety of ways. You use these elements in ever-changing combinations, you experiment to find out in each case what sort of emotional or ambient effects a particular combination generates. Thus you clearly show how something that produces a strong effect in the photograph is the result of relatively simple processes. There are technical processes. There are also factors such as spotlighting, backlighting, general illumination, but also graininess, focus, and lack of focus. All of these factors are essential. There is the question of how the subjects are interpreted, how situations, especially when they are ambiguous, tend to be understood in narrative or dramatic terms. Your work can sometimes have a jarring effect, because you do not only show what in the photograph is obviously so effective, strong, expressive, convincing, and dynamic. You also demonstrate that all these qualities have, in fact, been achieved through a variety of perfectly controllable processes. To that end, you choose photographs that “captivate,” photographs that function in such a way that the viewer is swayed by them, while they become more expressively charged and enigmatic.

BP: Yes, and that is also what gives me real joy in the working process, which involves setting traps for the viewer. In any event—even if I am interested in photographic mistakes and snapshots and all sorts of things—I aim to make strong images that engage the viewer, for it is, after all, quite a task that the viewer has to confront, if he allows himself to be engaged by them.

JM: That means that you place yourself beyond the methodologies of art making based on a criticism of ideologies or on a criticism of the media. Indeed, the critical treatment of photographs frequently does not try to question whether they have an effect or what sort of effect they have, but rather tends to consider only their sociological or social existence and deals with them only in dispassionate, analytical ways.

BP: I would say that the very process of evaluating the pictures, of deciding if and how they work, actually calls into question their social relevance as a document. As soon as we think more thoroughly about that, we assume a skeptical attitude toward the pictures themselves and their effect. That is the point when we no longer take them for granted. To examine the effect, or the influence of the pictures on us, is just as interesting as examining how that effect is produced in the first place, starting with the intentions of the picture maker, the photographer. These intentions, these ideas of form, are manifest in the way he uses composition, framing, perspective, color, and so on. Beyond these essential ways of capturing reality that I rely on, there are more technical ways of handling it that I rarely use, such as soft-focus filters, distortions, and over- or under-exposures. As for computer manipulations, I never use them at all. It would make no sense in my work—it would rather contradict, even destroy it. But there is in my work a question of focus and lack of focus—in other words, the question of foreground and background, because this is something that can be traced back to our perception. In that regard, the photographic device is exactly like our perception. We cannot see sharply at an infinite distance; we focus either on the foreground or on the background. In many regards photography does show what the photographer, at that moment, saw or perceived. So we are dealing here with the problems of perception, how we perceive our world, how we can perceive, what abilities we have to perceive, and how subjectively we actually perceive it and yet remain convinced: it was exactly how we saw it.

JM: That would indicate that you have no intention of resorting to simulation theory, which might sound something like this: “We are living in a world of images anyway; there is no escape from the images, there is no possibility…”

BP: On the contrary, my work actually challenges our ability to observe the world, our awareness of the world, and my work is actually a feverish search for the original, for the template of all those images. Of course my work presents a skeptical view of our world, of the world of images we have built around us, of their apparent clarity that can be misleading, but always with the goal of peering through that maze of images towards their origins.

Original interview conducted in German
Translation by Francois Boue

Johannes Meinhardt
“Barbara Probst – Exposures”, ed. by Steidl Verlag in cooperation with Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, Göttingen