All at once
Barbara Probst divides her time between New York and Munich, where she was born and, following a short stint at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, also where she began and completed her artistic studies. The AkademieGalerie in Munich presented her first solo exhibition from June 11 to July 6, 1990. Disciplinary boundaries were becoming relative: that same year, on June 27, the photography duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, who with Günther Uecker had been her teachers in Düsseldorf, were awarded the sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale, and the painting prize that year was given to a sculptor, Giovanni Anselmo. Beaux-arts classifications were now obsolete.
Probst’s exhibition in Munich was held in a rather unappealing space but one enjoying a busy passing trade, in a passage of the subway, probably retail premises converted to an art gallery when no business took on the lease. The exhibition was visible from outside, yet the users of the underpass could neither enter there nor would they ever dream of doing so. An aquarium would be more likely to attract the attention of these involuntary , mostly unassimilable to what is carelessly and indiscriminately called the public, in a space that was nevertheless eminently public. (A public is discriminating. The public is inclusive.) We understand the initiative: this is how the Akademie throws its promising students in at the deep end. It is safe, since the pool is dry. Probst took the provocation mildly. She exhibited, set bias and parallel, two cuboid forms raised slightly off the floor and of two complementary colors. The only works to be seen were perfectly tautological: an inscription screen-printed in large, legible type centered on each one indicated the materials used for their manufacture, the size, conjunction of the subjective and the real, the price offered for sale—the only thing that hasty and involuntary visitors may well have taken away from these unreachable volumes that were sheltered in their protective museum-airlock. Narcissistic fascination for tautology is a legacy of conceptual art: the echo effect, the pedagogical efficiency of repetition, the eloquence of stuttering. The small catalogue later self-published in 1998 with a clutch of other pamphlets devoted to exhibitions or particular works still paid tribute to it by reproducing the recto and verso of the original invitation card in postcard format on a scale of 1:1 on the front and back cover. The five catalogues self-published by the artist in 1998, including four with the critical essays by the German art historian Thomas Dreher, enable us to trace her evolution. This archival and promotional initiative must be emphasized: it reveals a certain self-confidence and the urge to show it. The choice to design small brochures of eight to eighteen pages in different formats and graphic designs is also significant of the way the projects followed each other without overlapping before 2000. Probst has never let herself be tempted to publish a thicker book offering an overview. The modesty of each of these pamphlets should not lead us to conclude the modesty of the editorial approach, which manifests as much the desire to make known her past experiences, which she fully affirms—she still readily distributes these brochures—as the need to take stock for herself before embarking on the major undertaking I am going to speak about.
After finishing the student program at the Akademie in 1990, Probst was given the opportunity to spend the year in New York. She was granted another residency there in 1997. In 2000, in Manhattan again, another platform would serve as the springboard for the cycle of Exposures still in development today. However, a few steps need to be mentioned before we get there.
The artist is ambitious. In 1994, under the title My Museum, she rephotographed views of rooms of various existing museums that had been placed in architectural models with immaculately white walls and reflecting floors. The striking cleanliness, the twofold excerption from the original context (leaving the original setting of the works to enter the museum, which is their ultimate destination, then moving a real museum to a virtual museum), and the choice of photography, a substitutive image, underline the medically sterile tendency of museography and efforts of heritage conservation in archaeology, natural history, or modern art.
That same year, an exhibition brought together these works and others that resembled architectural models. The cover of the catalogue published later under the title Inexpectation reproduced a prototype light box under construction showing a view of New York and still possessing at this stage all the allure of a shoebox. In 1995 the exhibition Welcome featured very large shots of expanded views of the artist’s apartment on a scale of 1:1 that had been installed in the Frankfurter Kunstverein in Frankfurt am Main, where on an oversize table a model of the apartment was presented to visitors at eye level. Probst is meticulous, and she always takes care to make a three-dimensional simulation of her displays before definitively installing them in the exhibition venue.
Finally, if one project more than any other anticipates Exposures, it is that of the series of eighty slides composing Was Wirklich Geschah (What Really Happened). The viewer is drawn into it by a giddying zoom out that forms a loop. Looking at it closely, twenty sequences of four images follow each other to create the desired illusion. Each sequence, from the first to the fourth image, shows a zooming out. Then the last image is simply materialized in the form of a print moved to another context, and placed at its center, creating the first image of the following sequence. This impression of being drawn in, multiplied by the repetition of the twenty zooms out, relies on the failures of memory, put to the test as in a slide show in which one image follows the other between two patches of darkness. The eighty images seem to have all been taken in New York. The only awkward connection is between the seventy-ninth and the eightieth image to allow the loop to start playing again.
At last we’re here! As the astronaut Neil Armstrong could declare, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969, as Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Philippe Halsman asked many well-known or unknown models to jump in front of them to capture their movement on the instant, as Dan Graham tested the effectiveness of his device Present Continuous Past(s) (1974) by taking off from the ground . . . so Barbara Probst jumped on January 7, 2000, on the roof terrace of an 8th Avenue building at night, under the lens of twelve cameras skillfully arranged and synchronized to be triggered all at once. It was exactly 10:37 p.m., New York time. The moment was really decisive, though the jump did not have to be spectacular to be radical. It was Exposure #1.
It would be wrong to think that with this work Barbara Probst’s whole artistic plan of action was in place and she would only work on its margins. All her works except one, which I will come to later, share the same procedure with multiple images shot simultaneously, and in twenty years she would produce more than 150 of them. But the situations were regularly renewed and stimulated the artist to engage in various experiments involving a very different approach to the image.
An interesting though marginal phenomenon took place, for instance, in Exposure #8b, which introduces a previous work, #3, in the background of the Munich studio where, by this means, we twice meet the same little girl a year apart. Self-quotation is a useful lever for staving off the risk and boredom of rehashing. It makes the artist face up to her responsibilities, with the first requirement being to enrich her purpose and not to live off her past work. This is shown by the works that follow.
In this way, the very atypical Exposure #10, which was shot at a racetrack and presents only exploded views, seeking to evade any main subject except the theoretical one of the production of images. Probst is not interested in giving a faithful account of real life—an impossible task, and a point I will have to come back to. Instead, she seeks to show that we always compose a relative image of reality. Of course, the idea is not new, but photography, with its single, exaggeratedly perspective point of view, precisely seeks to subject us to its empire and stubbornly encourages us to doubt its failures. The second image of the series shows in this respect that despite the expectations of the spectators, the giant screen is not synchronous with the spectacle of the race. This is played out in a fraction of a second, but it counts as much for a horse race as for a snapshot.
When a goal is scored in the final soccer game of the World Cup, the suspense is zero, because we hear through the window several bursts of cheers generated by the same event before it actually appears on our own devices (telephones, computers, TV screens, radios). Today we are accustomed to these slight differences, due to the different satellite networks, which affect the broadcasting of live sports programs. The notion of real time is mocked. So much the better! It would be discouraging during a penalty shoot-out.
To persuade ourselves that Barbara Probst does not keep playing out exactly the same storyline, let us just follow her on the three rooftop terraces of Manhattan that she explored from 2000 to 2006 and observe closely what she did there.
Exposure #18: three years after #1, in the daytime, she performs a new little jump on a different rooftop that enables her to bring the familiar silhouette of the Empire State Building into her field. For #22, she recruited six camera carriers for five images, thus breaking up the didactic perception that could be applied to her work. Asked about this anomaly, she explains: “Sometimes I don’t use all the pictures from a shoot. It can happen that a picture is redundant in the series, and fewer pictures make the series more compelling. It is a bit like in film editing. You remove certain sequences in the editing process that you think are not necessary for the flow of the film.” For #39 she covers her tracks on a New York rooftop by spreading out a large color print of a landscape in the mountains of Bavaria, before which her model strides with self-confidence. In #40 the photographer lies at the feet of the model to capture her as best she can, namely upside down. The print reflects this aberration, while the other image, taken from further away, is the right way up.
Probst does not see the works shot on rooftops as forming a category apart. She associates them with what she calls “cityscapes.” There is no disputing this, but they can just as easily be considered open-air studio experiments.
The classical photo studio offers Probst its neutrality, and it can accommodate all kinds of artificial accessories: large photographic prints can, for instance, be substituted for the uniform backdrops commonly used by professionals. In this way Exposure #93 equitably evokes their factitiousness as spacious views of New York and of the Bavarian Alps by aligning their horizon lines. A teenager poses in three-quarter profile in front of each image, but it also could be a perplexed self-portrait of the artist torn between these two highly contrasting places of residence.
Other images from different sources managed to colonize the studio: a completed work, as I have already shown it, in Exposure #8b, then all works in various media from 2005. In Exposure #50, for instance, the model appointed by Probst puts on the same rather astonished expression as the lead actor playing the role of the photographer under Michelangelo Antonioni’s guidance in an image excerpted from the 1966 film Blow Up, both turning toward the viewers and appealing to them with their gaze.
James Bond/Daniel Craig also enters the game, alongside Antonioni’s muse, Monica Vitti, whose artificial pose in the photo chosen is repeated in the very artificial construction of Exposure #87 where, as the third figure, the only real one, Probst’s model seeks to sneak into the two dimensions of the representation and where a large section of white wall occupies two thirds of the total area of the triptych.
Scenographic sophistication reaches its climax in works such as Exposure #59, involving a mirror with sharply focused outlines, like the old wedding photo resting against it, but not the leitmotiv image reflected in it, due to the depth of field, which just goes to show that mirrors are more three-dimensional than we think!
Before certain works, Probst cannot escape the prosaic question: how is it done? And if it is legitimate to feel relieved once you have understood, her work cannot be reduced to the construction of enigmatic puzzles. She started out as a sculptor, she has remained one, and it is quite natural for her to evoke the group of The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin in triptych #73, by bringing together just three teenagers instead of the six figures in the original. There is a real tactile dimension in her works; the indications of movement are also felt and the spaces between the characters are almost palpable. “In the ‘sculptural’ works I had the intention of making a sculptural work with the means of photography. The idea for the ‘3 boys’ comes from The Burghers of Calais by Rodin, which has no front or back, and every angle you approach the sculpture from provides you with a compelling point of view.”
Exposure #1 branches out toward types of experiences that may be judged as opposites: the most artificial, set in the seclusion of the studio, and those most rooted in “real life,” when the models are immersed in urban chaos. A corollary or synthesis of these two types, several works are characterized by views taken simultaneously outdoors and indoors. And these Exposures, such as #107, are among the most narrative. When they borrow images from movies they are, oddly enough, not very narrative. (The artist uses these existing images as a filmmaker would take scouting shots for an upcoming film. These existing images testify to this character of anteriority, where the film is still only planned: they are samples.)
A few works are built up only out of long shots: take the racecourse in #10 or the two diptychs of the skating rink in Central Park, #19 and #86, shot eight years apart. Their narrative potential is almost non-existent.
The artist makes a point about this: “I have trouble with the term ‘narrative.’ One can’t really say that these works are specifically narrative and the ones in the studio aren’t, because there is always narrative in each and every photograph. I always try to keep a straight, logical narrative out of my pictures to keep it open, ambiguous, and difficult to read in terms of a clean narrative that the viewer tends to look for. I prefer to call them ‘cinematic,’ which implies the narrative.” Probst is extremely concerned that no mistake should be made about her work, at the risk of applying an imprecise interpretation to it herself. The term “cinematic” is distinguished from cinematographic, which would make it fall back into the narrative trap, but it designates a more general aspect: its relation to movement. Admittedly, the invention of cinema put the image in motion, but it is necessary to return here to the ambulatory and exploratory potential from which the Exposures are derived and suggest; we have to come back to this “mock-up dimension” never having left the work of Probst, who by temperament raises anticipation to the utmost—as evidenced by her sketches, or even the clay figurines she makes to plan her shots—then adapts to the circumstances, shooting everything in color and then subjectively choosing which images she will print in black and white, and she may leave some of them aside, against any logic intrinsic to the conception of her image-systems.
Asked if she planned the format of the final proofs during the shooting, she told me this: “I often know the size of the piece even before we shoot. I want the viewer to be in the scenery of the images, to be part of the space the pictures lay out. The viewer mustn’t look at the pictures, but rather look into them and be an equivalent part of them. The order of the images in the space and their size creates a choreography of looking and moving for the viewer.” And her reply encompasses almost all the aspects mentioned so far.
Portraits emerge from all these urban views. Although she may be embarrassed by it, they contribute to the narrative “projection.” No character, no story. (It may be this phenomenon that gives her allusions to movies their abstract character, since when we find Monica Vitti or Daniel Craig alongside a living model, they are outside the story.) However, just as Probst is reluctant to consider rooftops as a category in itself, she does not want to see portraits in those she creates as a duet, trio, or quartet.
An interesting work cannot be reduced to a formula or even a theory. But why reject the evidence of portraiture when it seems to cover all of Probst’s work, from Exposure #2 to #135? She replies: “With ‘close-ups’ I mean all the portrait-like works. But I never call them portraits (even when they look like it), because they aren’t portraits. They are mostly about the gaze (of the viewer as well as of the protagonists) and they are about the question of the point of view of the viewer. To call them portraits would miss the point, since a portrait portrays a person.”
What in fact distinguishes Exposure #8b from #3, which appears in its background? Is it the willingness to communicate a certain self-image expressed by looking straight at the lens and not being distracted by any other activity? In this case #8 is a portrait, but not #3, where the child is looking at the camera, yet is too busy with what she’s doing, using the pressure of her finger to take the shot. If we consider #5 and #6, the model here looks straight at one of the lenses focused on her, but she abandons herself to the staging, she does not give up a representative image of herself, she is under the photographer’s orders but without particular connivance. So maybe the portrait only happens through a necessary role reversal? When the photographic subject commands the photographer? When she or he gives her a “go on!” of encouragement and approval?
Barbara Probst has increasingly been in demand for fashion shoots since 2016. Following her work with the fashion house Marni and the Berlin edition of Numero magazine, Vogue Italia arranged for her to work with the two Pavlova sisters, top models who are much in favor, and a make-up artist. Five spreads forming diptychs of single and double portraits play on simultaneous shots and the ambiguity that the sisters are twins. So how to tell? Which is which? Are there two of them? Or were they photographed twice separately? The single photo on the opening page repeats the exception of Exposure #20, which in 2005 already brought together twin sisters posing symmetrically on both sides of a virtual mirror, until then the only Exposure that was a single image. The studio is an echo chamber.
Photographing look-alikes, real or fake twins, as William Wegman did, or as Douglas Huebler claimed to do, was a concern of historical Conceptual artists. Today, however, the term “conceptual” is overused, as in “conceptual photography,” the latter integrating, as a legacy of the tautology, the photographic process into the production of the image, whether by rephotographing or exhibiting the entrails of the studio or workshop, or by the simple encounter, whether fortuitous or not, between the camera and a mirror—the shadow of the photographer entering the field of the image already smacks of conceptual photography in any amateur photo.
As an antidote to these commissioned works that compelled her to counterfeit herself, but offered her an unprecedented luxury of means, Probst resumed an experiment abandoned at the outset with Exposures #102, #103, and #105, all three of which incorporate characteristic elements of the repertoire of vanities: soap bubbles, skulls, and fruit doomed to wither (here very quickly). Five years went by before the artist definitely returned to the path of still life. The triptychs #138, #139, and #140 were made at intervals of one and two weeks in August and September 2018 in Munich. A completely different climate is created, borrowing from Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical painting and Paul Outerbridge’s photographs. Probst had already played twice with the fragmentation of bodies almost to the point of abstraction: in 2004 (#27) and 2013 (#110). The fragmented body is here epitomized in a foot, a leg, a hand, an elbow, a bent arm, and it is made doubly unreal by the fragmentation and uniform lighting of the studio, which confers on it the smooth texture of plastic or ceramic. The ingredients are almost the same as in 2013. A lemon replaces the apple, which has too many overtones, especially when it is bitten. When it is not a lemon, it is a bell pepper—but not stolen from Edward Weston. A wooden table forms the only element common to the three triptychs with the vertical blue background and the indeterminate body, hairless, reduced to pieces left abandoned, like the white porcelain debris scattered on the wooden tabletop.
Are we at the scene of a crime? Thanks to the bright colors of all the images, the atmosphere is not dramatic. The disorder is perfectly organized even in the alignment of two table legs: one on the edge of an image and the other in a corner where two sections of different colors meet. Here an empty bottle, there a full one. And I will have said everything if I mention the statuette of a dancer, perhaps a trophy won by a member of the family, a detail that would certainly have escaped me if the small, roughly shaped figurines made of clay to adjust the staging had not brought it back to my memory . . . All in color, these last still lifes from which emerges only a camera set on a stand prompt one to wonder: Why the simultaneity since nothing is happening? But why less here than elsewhere? Because nothing (any more) is happening here?
Exercise of Style
Photography is too general; it is a subject for a homespun philosopher. So I will stick to photographs. And, as we know, they will never offer an objective image of reality, even when their author gravitates around her subject. Three unavoidable factors of failure at least oppose it: the photographer, the recording process itself—but to describe it with this term clearly shows the excessive ambition of fidelity that one places in its incessantly perfected invention—and the material support for the picture, whatever it is. The subjectivity of the person who is looking at the photo is not in question. At any rate, we cannot deny that photographs are part of the real.
The real, this thing that escapes us, that seizes us, that sweeps us along, that is beyond us and that is not one, the real, this phenomenon that overflows on all sides, causes philosophers in search of inexhaustible topics to rejoice; it also makes us rejoice some of the time and can make us suffer the rest of the time, hence reality cannot let itself be caught up by the image and even less by a single image. This is just as well: we will never run out of it! And it is too bad that digital conversion leads to incontinence . . .
A photograph may constitute legal proof, but not sufficient proof; it cannot serve as a single piece of evidence for the manifestation of the truth in court and even less ever since this conversion that deprives us of the unique and unfalsifiable original negative, which somehow confused both photography and those ballistics experts. Albeit insufficient, photography remains an irreplaceable means of reproduction. (Is this what leads me to think about twins?) The phrase “manifestation of the truth” is a judicial expression; it implies that the real can to a certain extent be reproduced on demand in order to be assessed under irreproachable conditions of examination and to measure the value of another testimony or the pertinence of an assumption. For a testimony may be sincere and authentic, uttered with the desire to speak the truth (“repeat after me, I swear . . .”), yet tainted with errors. The real can only show itself and not from a single point of view, but it can also hide itself: in any case it does not speak itself. Between real facts—impregnated with reality, that is, “contaminated” by it—and their testimony, a loss is inevitable. I have just slipped imperceptibly from the real to the truth.
Veracity is subject to appraisal, and truth is incontestable. The manifestation of truth corresponds to the moment of the demonstration. According to the protocol of experimental science, reproduction and repetition play a decisive role in attesting the relevance of a discovery. If it always works, it is true. If it fails, even just once or twice, doubt spreads. The truth cannot abide contradiction and in one hundred percent of all cases the statistics are naturally on its side. The real is stubborn but tenuous. The tenuous is a thread difficult to grasp. Does “portable” evidence, if possible multiple, serve or terminate the exercise of judgment? Do proofs hold good forever? Is this what we might call the truth: an eternal truth? Or do they only hold good until they are contradicted? One can have an intuition of the truth—when one constructs the hypothesis; it must therefore remain uncertain. To have an intuition of the real does not make sense.
Do we always have to return to Ludwig Wittgenstein? The world or the real—are we talking about the same thing? Did Wittgenstein address press photographers? Did he look for a publication in L’illustration, in Life, in Time? (Paris-Match and Bild did not yet exist.) “The world is all that is the case,” he wrote, as an Exposure #1. “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” And further, he specified: “The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.” We have to understand: including everything we do not know and of which we are not witnesses, because the world and reality cannot be summed up in its manifestations. Besides, the things of the world are of little importance to Wittgenstein; he dismisses them immediately after his first formula. “The World is the totality of facts, not of things.” Too bad if the real is too broad to be understood as a whole and far too fragmented to be grasped in bits. Until “The world is all that is the case,” all is fine; it gets spoiled a little later.
An intuition is an idea that has not yet found its form. The organization of ideas is their evaluation, their shaping, and this passes through their ordering. It is this effort of clarity that I seek in writing—not the expression of the truth. I admit a preference for the film of thought unwinding and becoming entangled rather than the photos that are evidence of its production.
It is, with artificial means, toward another effort of clarity that Barbara Probst tends by constructing her stagings like convergent beams of light. Sometimes she breaks up this construction and scatters the pieces. This is the network that organized Exposure #1 and continues tirelessly to build and deconstruct. This is how she turns her back on photographic certainties. (There is no German photography; there are German photographers. Take the Bechers and their direct descendants, and take Wolfgang Tillmans or Jochen Lempert. Probst is obviously closer to Sam Samore or Christopher Williams.)
We do not live in photography, without offence to the magazines that force us to identify ourselves with their concocted images. We should not submit to their dictatorship. To escape from it, Probst multiplies the images, even those aiming at the decisive moment. The decisive moment is a fiction. Barbara Probst’s photos are all equivalents in a series. Equivalents: this is the title that Stieglitz gave his photos of clouds.
In February of this year, climate change did its work; the sky was empty, cloudless, the same uniform blue as the vertical colored backdrop of Exposure #124 forming part of the portfolio of the Pavlova sisters. (Look! I may just have suggested that the sky is horizontal!)
Even less than exact photography, there exist no exact metaphors, or only those we seek desperately without being able to find them. If, with Exposure #1 and #18, the metaphor of rebound is quite appropriate for Barbara Probst, then, to clarify it, I like to imagine the absurdity of a series of simultaneous ricochets. However, it should be clearly understood that I am not referring here either to a photograph with multiple exposures that Harold Eugene Edgerton might have taken or even his Graceful Leap of 1938.
In conclusion, with a kind of obviousness that surprises me, I would rather observe two similarities. The first: between Probst’s opus 1 (the close-up of the rooftop at least, and it is more striking in the first spread of the portfolio of the magazine Numero) and Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826), known to be the first fixed photographic image in history. The second similarity that I see is between the last of the artist’s still lifes and The Set Table, attributed to the same French inventor and presumed earlier, but the original on glass was lost by the French Society of Photography after being published by its fourth president in 1893—seek the proof!
 Barbara Probst (Munich: AkademieGalerie München, 1990), later self-published edition (1998).
 Barbara Probst / My Museum (Munich: Kulturreferat München, 1994).
 Barbara Probst / Inexpectation (Düsseldorf: Galerie Binder & Rid, 1994); later self-published edition (1998).
 Barbara Probst / Welcome (Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1995); later self-published edition (1998).
 Barbara Probst, in correspondence with the author, February 24, 2019.
 Barbara Probst, in correspondence with the author, January 16, 2019.
 Barbara Probst, in correspondence with the author, January 16, 2019.
 Barbara Probst, in correspondence with the author, February 24, 2019.
 Barbara Probst, in correspondence with the author, January 16, 2019.
 Numero (Berlin), no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2017), and Vogue Italia (Milan), no. 803, Doppio Sogno (July 2017).
 This is the first statement in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., and London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1922). Here I have been so bold as to compare the French, German, and English versions.
 Alphonse Davanne, “Invention et applications de la photographie,” CNAM, Conférences publiques sur la photographie (Paris: Gauthier-Villars et fils, 1893), 11–32. Davanne, the man who possibly lost the first photograph ever made, was the grandfather of Francis Picabia, one of the most influential artists of the coming century.