An Exposure of Photography: Barbara Probst’s Exposures

One of the pivotal myths of the photographic is the facticity of the moment. This moment defines the creation of the image as the mechanical product of a technical apparatus. But what knowledge do we gain through this supposed facticity as to the relationship of the photographic to the »world« or to the viewers? What significance may lie in the assumed coincidence of appearance and photograph? Does the photographic image evade its cultural discursivization in this moment? It would almost seem as though this myth seeks to disguise, even deideologize, the very technicity and, thus, the role of photography within the systems of rule of modernism, that which Michel Foucault called the »technology of individuals«. The notion of facticity refers to an objective aspect, a mechanical, self-actuating relationship, as it were, of image and world, as if the photographic denoted something uncorporeal, faithful to reality, realistic, something beyond the cultural norm, purpose or system of rules, not only alienated from the subjective, but left, as it were, to the »immense disorder of things« (Barthes 1985), to a »world in constant change and confusion« (Siskind 1982). It disguises the conception of perception, image and reality that in fact creates all facticity and not only forces it into a (visual) availability. But this concept of facticity also implicitly presents the concept of the image as depiction and reproduction, conceiving it in a kind of homologous relationship to the world, and thus suppressing the conditions of possibility that are to be created, the foundations upon which we can conceive the image as a unified form of representation in the first place, as: »This unit does not have any referents; it does not exist outside of the image« (Snyder 1980). However, nor should we prematurely assume that a reappraisal of this myth of facticity, even if it is critical, always leads only to the unhelpful question as to the photographic in the field of tension of »realism« and »selfreference «; as if the photographic image provided no answer to the question as to the relationship of world and image that is codified – i.e. objectified – in it, and thus forms a specific dispositif of combining technical and cultural practices.

Barbara Probst’s series »exposure« showcases a fleeting moment for multiple cameras: exposure – uncovering, revealing – as synonyms of photographic practice are enacted and at the same time put into perspective. The artist thus refers to the photographic paradigm of the facticity of the moment, but breaks down this moment into different perspectives that are, per se, both true and insufficient. Facticity is enacted in the multi-part, large-format tableaux as a construct of photography itself. The »exposures« show that omissions and contradictions, that replacements and appropriations in particular, are part of photographic practice itself, and that they indicate how a picture not only shows something but also causes something else, an other picture to disappear – other pictures that, in Barbara Probst’s work, not only supply a »more exact« description, but in some cases suggest totally different interpretations of the situation – which is, incidentally, always enacted for the cameras. In this sometimes contradictory confrontation of »exposures« of one and the same situation, the pictures do not comment on each other, among other things they refer to completely contrary contexts, thus enabling a commentary on the connotation of the photographic by not merely misrepresenting, but in fact effacing the denotation: should we see the night-time scene in the forest (»exposure #8«) as a young girl’s adventurous, playful excursion or as a crime scene? Is the quickly sketched situation of three people on the roof of a house (»exposure #17«) the result of an aesthetic idea or are we witness to the impending escalation of an eternal triangle, the meaning of which we cannot discern from the two pictures displayed by the artist? Why is one of the two women making a defensive gesture? Is there some reason that she specifically is looking straight at the camera from the same angle of view as the man in the foreground (and not the other woman in the foreground)?

Barbara Probst embroils us in different possible interpretations; particularly by apparently focusing on a specific moment in time in the various series, she directs our attention to the time before or after, diverting it away from the meaning of this empictured moment and to the construction of a duration that actually creates the meaning of the action or scene, i.e. that does not give us anything to see but something to think about. From this perspective of factifization, facticity would seem doubly suspicious: on the one hand, photography does not represent anything that may be denoted or described as a fact; on the other hand, even the appropriation of such a fact would by no means produce meaning. By carefully pondering these strangely unveiled and yet inaccessible pictorial constellations that Barbara Probst presents as »exposures«, photography increasingly appears to be something that, although revealing something real, always manifests and decodes this something as a cultural artefact in an at least ambiguous way. »They are surrounded by a meaninglessness that is only filled up by adding a text« (Krauss 2000). For Barbara Probst, however, this text consists only in indicating the place and time of the photo itself – the text, then, only refers back to the pictures once again. Yet we may also see this reference literally, in that it is precisely not the question as to the meaning of what is depicted that is to the fore, but rather the pictorial conditions of the photograph itself, i.e. an examination of the photographic dispositif as it is inscribed in the production of every photograph. The »object« of the »exposures«, then, could very well be the photograph itself.

However the contexts are defined in which the question of the facticity of the photographic is positioned, it revolves around an actualization of the question as to possible constructions of reality/ realities and the question of the role of image media in this complex process of construction; and she does, after all, assume that the photographic still does play a role in this respect considering that in the past ten years many people have drawn attention to the fact that the photographic not only needs to be reformulated under the conditions of the digital environment, but has indeed forfeited its relevance as a dispositif. Debates on the fluidity of contemporary pictoriality, the transformability of the image and its almost boundless circulation in particular entrench the question as to a facticity of the moment into new contexts of a discernible urge to achieve authenticity and real-time experience that has more than infected the mass media and thus a public visual culture in recent years. Under these – new and constantly changing – conditions, the photographic seems to be doggedly opposed to disappearing as the content of a new – digital or networked – medium. But prematurely attributing this opposition to the »content« of reality that is, as it were, inscribed in every photograph, that »has so to speak seared the subject« (Benjamin 1931), would fail to appreciate the problematization of all notions of this real that have existed in the course of establishing the technical media in the twentieth century. »Reality« is not a category that may be conceived beyond the conditions of cultural communication: »Realistic representation rests conceptually and historically on the assumption of a model that (…) allows us to demand and indeed find systematic relationships between the image and the object of the representation. But this object is not simply the world as it is, the world as it appears, nor is it even the way we see it; rather it is a standardised, characterised, clearly defined conception of seeing itself« (Snyder 1980). The photographic dispositif hence concretizes above all a (culturally coded) conception of the way in which a representation correlates with a model of seeing. This correlation, however, is not decided by technical means but is rather »linked to the specificity of those social acts that are intended by the image and its meanings« (Burgin 1977, author’s emphasis). The chemical artefact that is the image, »the utopian character of the denotation«, as even Roland Barthes himself wrote, who was to introduce the concept of the punctum as the constitutive disruption that inscribes meaning into the image on the connotation side, i.e. the codes that take effect while reading the photograph; the image as a »trace of a suspended absence« (Wetzel/Wolf 1994) remains unattainable, it is inaccessible and merely the vision around which the cultural discourse is organised, its blind spot, la tache (cf. Iversen 1994). There is »no positive knowledge of the thing-in-itself, we may only denote a place and ›give it space‹« (Zizek 1994). This would imply that we understand photography as one of the spaces in which the discourses on this knowledge of the thing-in-itself are organised and culturally perpetuated. And the empictured constellation of medium, observation and image that Barbara Probst organises in the »exposures« would seem to encourage us to discuss it in this discourse of the photographic as a media-based system of denotation and organisation of a model of seeing. This is also indicated by the systematic relationships and vanishing lines that Barbara Probst seems to develop in the »exposures« between and within photographic discourses (the reference to various genres of photography, e.g. fashion photography, straight photography, enactment or conceptual photography). They encourage us to revolve around the photographic dispositif from the viewpoint of her works, as the works themselves seem to revolve around the photographic dispositif. Ultimately it is not only a question of the construction of a seeing, a perception or a view, it is also a matter of constructing a subject as a point of departure for the images, the »constitutive inclusion of the observer (…) not as an error to be surmounted, but rather as a condition of observation itself (…)« (Esposito 2003). And this condition of observation is not only the point of departure of seeing, but equally the »place« of an identity: »Photography is one signifying system among others in society which produces the ideological subject in the same movement in which they ›communicate‹ their ostensible ›contents‹« (Burgin 1977).

»exposure #14« presents three photographs showing a man meeting a couple with whom he seems to be friends – the moment just before the meeting is described in these three pictures. It almost seems as though the camera were adopting a kind of psychological position, as if it were describing this everyday moment from the protagonists’ various perspectives, as if it were showing their views of the others. But the centre of the triptych is a picture that comes from the outside, as it were, that requires an observer and thus breaks through this scene that is composed in the style of a subjective camera. Not all of the »exposures« feature this unseen view from the outside that confronts the photographs with the preexisting view that denotes the subject as being constituted by the pictures (and thereby manifests that the choice of viewpoint is an allocation of a place). In »exposure #17«, in which we can only discern the photographer’s positions on the strength of viewing conditions inherent in the pictures, and – enacted as dramatic counterpoints of perspective, of the picture detail and in the confrontation of colour and black and white – it is equally this unseen view that establishes, as it were, the work. In »exposure #11B« this unseen view alludes to surveillance and pursuit, in »exposure #8« to discovery, revelation, to someone who has become an involuntary witness to some potentially terrible occurrence. And we should not forget that the constellation of the pictures also always ascribes this unseen view to the observers that we are, thereby confronting us with these pictures in a very specific (constitutive) position. In »exposure #6«, all the observer/photographer viewpoints are visualised. Similar to a fashion shooting, a model is enacted for three photographers and, accordingly, faces straight towards one of these cameras. But the overall situation of the »shooting« is in fact enacted for two other photographers, whom we can make out some distance away; their presence in the picture is what actually allows us to reconstruct the overall view/image constellation. The object of the photographers’ interest is not the model but rather the situation of photographing in the public space, that depicts a constellation of several interrelated conditions of observation, photographing, and thus viewing. There arises a context of justification between the pictures that creates the necessity, as it were, of incorporating these pictures that always have to be made to disappear in order to create a picture into the construction of pictorial conditions, to transform them into an inherent element of the pictures. Even if this is not that unseen view that constitutes the series, it is oftentimes the views of others intended in the apparatuses that establish our own image construction, and it is always a being-seen that conditions seeing. In some »exposures« it is remote-triggered cameras on tripods, bereft of all subjectivity, as it were, that assume and simulate this view of the other(s), »forcing« a subject into a form of representation (as in »exposure #5«).

If the »exposures« depict quite general spaces of constructed visibility, they do not so much create visibility as visualise it as a form of systematization of a visual medium. They install a kaleidoscope of gazes that can be reconstructed, as it were, on the basis of an image constellation; gazes that do not appear in equilibrium, but rather open up a space in which a discourse takes place, in which a conflict of perspectives, perceptions and thus a conflict of meanings prevails. The »exposures« seem to be interested in the production of facticity, or rather, in the problem of producing facticity, and this problem is organised as an interplay of seeing, view, apparatus and image. Hence, Barbara Probst presents photography itself as a medium that specifically interrelates view, perception, apparatus and image, as a condition of observability itself – and she gives form to this condition, a form that safeguards the reflexivity of the medium of photography, thereby allowing us to reconstruct and describe its »mediality«. Finally, this process of reconstruction allows us to describe the photographic myth of the facticity of the moment – which was the point of departure – as something that enacts the media constellation of photography, that is to say, as the facticity of the photographic itself.

(Translation: Richard Watts)

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Reinhard Braun
Camera Austria International #85, Graz, p. 9-18