The Enigma of Photography

Barbara Probst
The Enigma of Photography

Francesco Zanot, 2022

July 1, 2000, 10:37 pm. Barbara Probst is on the roof of a building in Manhattan, number 545 on 8th Avenue. It is a typical 1920s-era building in the middle of the Garment District. Twenty-six floors high. A brick façade in the full Art Deco style. The German artist has built a set with twelve cameras ready to shoot from as many points of view. She leaps. The camera flash goes off. Her image is multiplied. The moment marks the start of a modus operandi that she has carried on continuously ever since, namely taking two or a longer series of photographs at the same moment, but capturing each exposure from a different angle. As of now, Monday, February 21, 2022, 00:47 (CET), there are 67 such series in total. 167 image groups. More than twenty years have passed, but the amaze- ment of that moment lives on as we recall her first work and consider all that was to follow from it.

We are so used to observing the world from a single point of view that we struggle to accept the possibility—nay, the evidence—that other per- spectives exist. We know that we are surrounded by countless points of view, some of them from real material beings (people and animals) or material entities (cameras, webcams, smartphones), and others of them abstract and hypothetical. But we find it reassuring and consoling that we can see from only one point of view at a time. Thus, we tighten the chain of perception to: seeing = believing = knowing. Barbara Probst’s works cuts through that chain. She shatters the meaning of each of these terms. We are seized by doubt: about photography itself, about individual perception, and about the details of the world that we observe. This is what Pirandello is writing about in The Late Mattia Pascal when he wonders what would happen if the sky above the puppets’ heads in a theater were suddenly to tear open: “Believe me, Mr. Meis, the whole difference between ancient and modern tragedy lies in this: a hole in the paper sky.”

Probst’s images present us with something that is at once familiar and strange: what Freud meant by the “uncanny”. The friction provokes confusion. Disorientation. We bring our own subjectivity into play: it is we who are doing the observing. We are used to thinking that the world is just as we see it, but as soon as we take our subjectivity into account, we come to understand that what we perceive is only one of countless possibilities. Far from being a means of preserving the “truth”, the camera becomes a means of generating alternative truths. We approach these images as if they were a film on a cinema screen. It takes a leap of faith to believe in what they show.

Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon (1950), is a master study in the art of presenting multiple points of view. The plot is well known: the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife is told by four different characters, all of whom give mutually contradictory accounts of the event. What matters here is that the protagonists not only provide a different version of the facts, but that each of their versions comes across as equally plausible. In fact, Kurosawa almost never uses subjective shots, and favors angles that reflect the external gaze of the narrator who oversees the exposition of the facts. In addition to listening to characters that lie, we also see images that lie. Lying is ingrained in photography. Barbara Probst reveals this fact to us by overturning the generally held assumption that an image captured through a lens must be authentic. But photography is far from impartial; on the contrary, it is a medium that happily embraces partiality. It combines the author’s partiality (or subjectivity) with a photographic framing beyond which there is always something else. Once they have been reduced to fragmented images, things can appear to be what they are not. Or appear not to be what they are.

Each photograph is a detail. Each photograph is a fragment. A particle. The outcome of a collision. Like any accident, it requires simultaneity between (at least) two events. The trajectories of the author and the subject intersect. The collision generates an image that is unique and particular. Like a piece of debris. Like a grain of sand. In the tv series Sense8 (2015-18), the Wachowski sisters imagine eight strangers around the world linked together by a deep psychic connection. From thousands of miles away, they can hear what others hear and see what others see. In certain key scenes in the series, the characters come to one another’s aid, offering their knowledge and skills to help their companions out of difficulty. The essential condition for their telepathic power is simultaneity. The “sensates” can share powers if they are in communion with one another at the moment they need to pool their resources. Probst rises above the rhetorical banality of the “decisive moment” by deploying a strategy of proliferation reminiscent of the fertility of organic nature. The dictatorship of the one single unit is challenged by the democracy of the multitude.

It is a matter not of truth but of awareness. Probst references Antonioni. In Exposure #99, a work from 2012, hanging on the wall of the room where the shoot is taking place is a print of a still image taken from Blow-Up (1966). The protagonist, Thomas, a fashion photographer, is seen as he presses the shutter button. In the film, Thomas finds that blowing up the photographs he has taken does not allow him to obtain a more readable or detailed image of reality, because the enlarged images simply blend into the grain of the photographic material. Likewise, in these exposures by Probst, the multiplication of points of view does nothing to elimi- nate the ambiguity of the scene. The amount of information available to us is inversely proportional to the persuasive power of the images. The plot thickens. Rather than providing answers, these works raise questions. Or, better, they force the observer to approach them with a critical frame of mind. Photography is a puzzle to which there is no solution. These works invite us not to contemplate, but to think and participate.

Repetition. Like Giorgio Morandi, Sol LeWitt, Jan Groover, Bernd and Hilla Becher… Probst repeats. And repeats. She follows a repeated pattern of production. It has been said that since the summer of 2000 all her works are the result of her following the exact same practice. In taking the photographs, she replicates the same process each time: she never takes a single shot, but always uses burst mode to take two or more at a time.

In common with her predecessors, she finds that repetition is one way of answering the need to inquire deeply into the medium that she uses for her art. Probst insists. She resists. Her works are research programs. They are opportunities for further study. They invite us to examine the subjects that she puts in front of the lens, and to inquire into the language of photography. She constantly investigates this conglomerate of topics from slightly different angles by circling around them, by making minimal shifts and adjustments: translations, lateral slidings, re-viewings of the scene. In Barbara Probst’s series, repetition is also intended as a way of testing our expectations. They say that when we stand before an image, we see only (or mainly) what we know. These works cause us to do the opposite. They are windows open onto the unexpected.

Thomas, the photographer in Blow-Up, often appears in the company
of his camera, that ever-present mechanical prosthesis of the new man- cyborg. Probst, by contrast, separates herself from the mechanical act of taking the photograph. Because all the photos are shot simultaneously, her gaze corresponds with at most just one (if any) of the images that we see. Or perhaps, since she herself often eschews the use of
the viewfinder, her gaze and ours do not correspond at all. We are used to considering photographs to be images that the photographer saw at the moment they were taken—or, to be exact, in the immediate instants before and after (because the viewfinder snaps shut when the shutter clicks open for the exposure). This is not what happens here. What we see in Probst’s pictures has in most cases been carefully staged, but at the moment the shot is taken, all control is released. William Eggleston comes to mind, whose practice of (sometimes) taking pictures while holding the camera away from his eyes is by now legendary. It is a liberating gesture. To photograph is not only to see, but also to foresee. Literally to imagine. Even where everything seems perfectly in order, properly composed and under control, a residual uncertainty will persist.


Francesco Zanot
Poesia e vérita, published by Triennale Milan