Back to the Beginning, On Barbara Probst´s Photographic Series

Barbara Probst investigates the many ambiguities inherent to the photographic image. In her work the relationship of the photographic instant to reality is intensified in two distinct ways whereby the captured moment acquires an almost unsettling quality: on the one hand, Barbara Probst abandons the single-eye gaze of the camera and divides it into various points of view. On the other, she multiplies and diversifies the short moment of the shot. Thanks to a radio-controlled release system she can simultaneously trigger the shutters of several cameras pointed at the same event or subject from different angles and various distances. The depictions of each spe-cific instant generated by this method constitute a series. The relationship of single shots to one another within a series is not determined by a common unifying principle or any stylistic markers. There is no formal proximity and no overall theme to tie the works together. Yet the photographs are bound by a tighter but still elusive link, namely the one and only moment of an exposure which is their very subject.

In our everyday life each instant is tied to a single experience no matter how complex this experience may be. We depend on a notion of time experienced as a sequence of events which seems to be indispensable to our sense of being. Different occurrences can only be experienced at different moments and the same occurrence can only be seen from one place. Every view depends on the position of one observer and a single point in time. It is only when we talk about God or the gods that we say they can see everything from any one point and one thing from everywhere. The very object we behold can obstruct our sight and this can render everything else invisible. Photography operates within the field of viewpoints. The sense of loss that speaks out of every photograph has to do with the exceptional character of any singled out time fragment and the impossibility of superseding the single gaze . And every photograph is an attempt to elude this sense of loss.

Yet, this challenge to our notion of reality and to our perception patterns is not enough to account for the sobering and puzzling effect that Barbara Probst’s pictures leave behind in the spectator’s mind. The photographs in each series exclusively show one subject, be it an actress, a model, an action captured by the cameras (or even capturing the cameras). While it seems at first sight that each frame of a series might belong to a different genre or style, connections emerge between different image types while the apparent directness resulting from the camera settings, distances, exposures and film stock qualities, is revealed. At the same time the image (what I see) is there independently from the subject (what the camera sees) and from the limits inherent to a single moment captured in simultaneous exposures. This challenges the assumption that images have an immediate relationship to reality. Here the moment of the shot is not an instance of truth.

The artist knows that the transmutation of a photograph (the silent inscription of light) into an image happens almost reflexively. Our belief in the documentary accurateness of photographic images is brought into question in this series where no trace of candidness is to be found. One and the same moment as well a single subject generate different readings. I recognize my own desire within the work. The photograph itself can be read as the mere result of an effort to compile a series of experiments and it seems to depend on a subjective understanding. It denies me, as spectator, the comfort of both the appearance of reality and the impenetrable framework that is pictorial illusion. It throws my gaze off course and excludes cursory assumptions such as “That’s all there is to it”.

While this strategy highlights the relationship between picture and spectator, it also announces a skeptical stance toward authorship. Photography assistants are employed as living tripods, they become one of many camera elements and within the scenery they behave as extras. A scene, a showplace is set up and even the documentary aspects are clearly used for effect. The artist also provides verbal indications on distances and framing decisions. She leaves behind the image seen through her view finder, abandoning the last guardian of the author’s guiding spirit. In her hands, the remote shutter-control system is the tool with which the illusion of immediacy is shattered, with which the contract between eye and image is revoked. She abandons her own gaze and entrusts that task to others. All decisions are concentrated at the point in time when the film is exposed. Whatever results from preliminary decisions (choice of film, diaphragm settings, ex-posure timing, camera type etc…) and whatever somehow escaped the artist’s control cannot be deciphered in the end-product. This amounts to nothing less than the actual dismantlement of the notion of authorship, which does not consist in delegating decision-making authority to auto-matic processes or obvious techniques but in dissipating established limits between what is delib-erate and what is unintentional, between choice and chance as a way to challenge the author’s viewpoint.1

The artist lays her cards on the table: the illusion is destroyed since everything is displayed in plain sight. The instrument is turned against itself. One sees cameras, studio lights, tripods and additional camera operators (the photographer functions as a vehicle for photography). If the images tricked or even deceived us, it won’t be long until we find out why: what one sees is a fiction but also a fact i.e. the mechanism, the photographer’s gear, the whole machinery involved. The presence of the apparatus places the image in a field beyond the genre of photography.2 In Probst’s work these devices are not just literally visible as the photographer’s permanently visible instruments; they are an integral part of the image and constantly refer to its technical contingencies and to the instant when it is produced. The fact that one can identify simultaneously with the person seeing the image through the camera lens and the person seeing the instrument itself also demonstrates how our sense of order within the world depends on such devices.

The fragmentation of the image into multiple, theoretically unlimited positions disrupts the spectator’s sense of self as he is left to grapple with the sheer improbability of these disparate angles. An infinite number of possible points of view is suggested by a few pictures. The rules of language are already contained in a single sentence. The nearly utopian possibility of contemplating the same moment from different perspectives is somewhat intoxicating. Yet, this unfolding of images cannot be seen as representing distinct aspects of the same subject. We are not just seeing a situation, a model from various sides. We are looking at images that belong to completely different spheres. Some definite hints, a body posture, a facial expression, a flying lock of hair, passers-by and some minute details indirectly suggest a real connection from one picture to another. However, the genre triggers associations that cannot be matched with any credible sequence of events as they are depicted in the photographs. We find ourselves locked within divergent narratives; a single subject, a single event can suddenly be read in widely contrasting ways. This recurrent shifting of viewpoints amounts to toying with both the spectator’s and the subject’s identity. We are not alone with our gaze. A mysterious other has cast his eyes onto the same scene. We are seeing through anothers eyes and this alone brings our own viewpoint into perspective. Someone else or even something else could take over or own vision. We are even ready to lend an eye to the camera’s view. Thus the observer becomes the person observed. Suddenly, we escape the bounds of the image, the suggestive illusion of a particular genre. At this stage, another point of view is being sought but only its mechanical surrogate is to be found: the camera with its tripod. We are slightly disconcerted to find out that, in order to preserve the pictorial illusion for ourselves, we would have to ignore the equipment. Yet, we do not seem to be able to see any further for now.

If it is at all possible that photography may behave critically toward its own conditions of being, if photography amounts to anything more than just adding further sets of pictures to the already existing ones, then photography must be able to show something that can question photographic images as such and the problematic status of reality within them. These impossible views of one moment emphasize its fictitious character. Instead of highlighting the images’ realistic potential the multiplicity of exposures brings out the mania and illusion at hand. We look behind the device and we look back. In the end, what we see is the beginning of the image, the actual moment of an exposure. This moment is located at a crossroads from the start. Within this moment there is an overlap between the history (the moment in history when the apparatus was discovered, a moment enacted once and every time in its very function) and the present of what is retained, the forever fleeting present, which contains all possible readings of the image. This moment which otherwise lies invisible, buried under the images is the central theme of this series of photographs which reveals the act of photographing.

The belief in an absolute truth of the photographic image has been thrown into doubt for a long time. There is no going back. Barbara Probst´s endeavor to cast new light on the entire field of photographic activity offers an opportunity to break down or at least challenge the defining power of images. She has managed to cut an analytical path around the problem. But when all candidness is gone what is left of the world? A purely cynical destruction of the illusion would ultimately leave us disappointed. Yet as we view this series of images we feel a sense of relief. Since we cannot thrust the pictures, we do not have to trust them. We are given permission to enjoy our experience because nothing compels us to believe. I escape the insistent claim of truth and the trap of taste. I do not have to judge each single photograph because this is not what is expected of me. Disappointment unexpectedly gives way to a suspended sense of freedom. We are called to find our way through the world as we pass by the pictures or skip over them. This moment of enlightenment questions our world of images precisely because it strives for reality.

Stefan Schessl
Translation by Francois Boue

1 Here I would like to refer the reader to the work of Sam Samore who hired private detectives to take snaphots in the midst of anonymous crowds. Details from the original photographs (e.g. eyes, lips, etc…) were enlarged and shown as such.
2 See a similar type of questioning at work in Velázquez´ Las Meninas (1656)

Stefan Schessl
“Barbara Probst – Exposures”, ed. by Kunstverein Cuxhaven, Cuxhaven