Collaged Knowledge: Barbara Probst Interviewed by Will Fenstermaker
Photographs that provoke the viewer into seeing.
On January 7, 2000, Barbara Probst placed twelve cameras on the rooftop of her Manhattan studio. Each was set at a different angle. Inside their perimeter, Probst, wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, leaped into the air and triggered a strobe light, which left an imprint of the artist simultaneously on twelve frames of film. Those photographs comprise the first work of the artist’s long-running Exposures series. Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m. (2000), currently on view at Higher Pictures, is the genesis of a rich photographic conceit. Each Exposures work is a series of multiple pictures—always taken simultaneously, often with cameras visible—that provokes viewers into questioning their relationship to photography and, ultimately, their own subjective point of view.
Will Fenstermaker On my way to your studio, I saw a photoshoot around the corner. There was a photographer and a model in this gorgeous SoHo alley lit by that iconic slanted city light. Behind the photographer was another person with an iPhone.
Barbara Probst Taking photos of the shoot?
WF Yes! I don’t think I’d have noticed that had I not been on my way to talk to you.
BP That’s really funny.
WF And it was only then that I realized what you’re doing—making pictures about picture-making—is something we do all the time.
BP This reminds me of a picture I took in Chinatown in the mid-’90s. I saw this almost theatrical setting on Doyers Street, like a scene out of a movie. A photographer was taking pictures of a model, and I took a picture of both. I had that picture on my desk for a long time, and I loved it. I couldn’t figure out what it meant to me, exactly; but I knew that there was more in it. It was only later, after I’d made a few Exposures, that I rediscovered this picture in my archive and realized I had come full circle. The Exposures helped me understand my intuitive interest in that picture.
WF When I look at your Exposures I become aware of how I see—that is, how I construct images in my mind. At any given moment we actually work to see, and this is true all of the time, not just when looking at photographs. Seeing is a form of labor, in other words, and not an entirely different one than picture-making. The photographs you make are often quite mundane, and I think your use of the images we passively encounter thousands of times a day is what allows the works to challenge us into thinking about how we see, or into seeing differently.
BP Yes, it is not my intention to invent new, meaningful pictures; those would only draw viewers in and distract them from the essential aspect of the work, namely how the images relate to one another. So I mostly use pictures from our collective memory and pictures that don’t carry much meaning individually. And I am interested in clichés, which we all seem to read the same way. New York City, for example, is the perfect backdrop for my work, because it has been reproduced endlessly, to the degree that walking down a street here sometimes feels fictional. Clichés, like any other photograph, are inherently linked to one fixed point of view, defined by the position of the camera in the moment the shutter was released, and taken on by the viewer. My work provokes the viewer into seeing, and empathizing with, various angles, and thereby experiencing the deconstruction of any singular point of view.
WF I’m interested in how your work deals with narrative, because you challenge a lot of our received wisdom regarding how to read photographs. Is the order of the images important in your work? Say, that we read the photographs from one through twelve, or from left to right?
BP The order and the way the images are installed in the space determine how the images relate to one another, so they are essential to the work. They suggest a choreography for the viewer, a back and forth of the gaze, a rhythm and a movement. And at the same time, there is an intellectual movement that happens between them: connecting, associating, and reading the images, as if they’re words in a poem.
WF The connection to poetry reminds me of Vilém Flusser, who thought that the photographic imagination is similar to the poetic imagination in that both place concepts in an imaginative-spatial relationship to each other. He wrote that photographic literacy is a form of collaged knowledge rather than a linear one. Your work turns a moment of time into a spatial event, and I think that allows one to see this collage and map it to one’s own experience of a moment.
BP That’s interesting. I read Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), but can’t see a direct connection. What do you mean, exactly?
WF Well, perhaps the mythology that you push against in your work is the decisive moment or the idea that photography functions linearly. One moment is “decisive” because the moments immediately preceding and following it were not worth photographing. But you blow that open. The question of what’s “worth photographing” becomes complicated, and therefore so does the photographer’s role in this process. You propose multiple photographs—
BP —and there is no hierarchy among them. No picture is more important than the others; each vantage point has the same value. That’s what my work reveals. So the photographer’s role as the one who finds the “perfect” point of view is called into question.
In my work, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s single point of view is broken up into many, but I leave the moment as it is. Whether it’s “decisive” or not is not really my concern. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” mystifies the photographer’s intuition in catching the perfect moment. I am interested in demystifying the intuition of the photographer. I’m asking why and how we make pictures, and also why and how we look at these pictures. So the role of the viewer is as interesting to me as the role of the photographer. I am really drawn to Jean-Luc Godard’s notion of the viewer. When he introduced jump cuts in Breathless in 1960, he said the viewer fills in the gaps and completes the film. Compare that to Alfred Hitchcock, who made sure that every second of his movies was understood the way he wanted it to be understood. Hitchcock made movies that are complete without the viewer. Godard made movies that become complete when the viewer watches them.
WF Yes, in Godard’s jump cuts you see your observation of a moment depart from the moment itself. In a Bergsonian sense, the scene remains mentally intact even though parts are missing. I think this happens in your work, too. Viewers are called back to these moments, and in reassembling the images, they can inhabit the moment in a way they couldn’t when it passed.
BP Reassembling the images and re-creating the moment in your mind—however long that takes—can make that moment become really long and spacious. We all perceive time differently, so it’s subjective, like memory, which can be completely different from person to person. But actually, I am thinking more about space than about time. I think of these works as sculptural. Each is like a three-dimensional impression of a moment, but time is only a means to an end for me. Time binds the images together factually so they can unfold in space imaginatively. I come from sculpture and never really stopped being a sculptor.
WF In making your photographs, you often cover a large space. For example, you’ve made a number of works that combine interior shots from your studio with exterior shots on the street. How do you reconcile these different spaces, spatially and pictorially?
BP The common moment easily reconciles the very different settings of the pictures: exterior or interior, one chaotic and loud, the other tranquil and intimate. It is like real life, with everything happening at the same time on this planet. But I discovered an astonishing aspect in these works, which is that these shoots make seemingly unrelated incidents belong together in an almost mystical way. Inseparable! As if they reveal we all share a forever-passing now, despite not knowing of each other.
WF One thing that’s remarkable about the Exposures series is how far you’ve stretched its basic concept to examine all these facets of photography. You’re still making Exposures today. How does it feel to exhibit the first work twenty years after it was made?
BP If feels really good to go back to the roots. Oddly, the first piece is still the largest I’ve made. And it is perhaps the most important for me, because it provided a foundation for everything else to come, so far. There was never a decision to devote so many years of my life to this idea, but every work I made led to the next question! Over the course of the last twenty years, I’ve worked through quite a few genres: portrait and street photography, fashion, nudes, landscape, still life. The still lifes are the most recent, the most playful, and intuitive works. So it’s exciting to show the beginning, which was purely analytical in its intent.
Barbara Probst: Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m. is on view at Higher Pictures in New York City until February 8.
Will Fenstermaker is an art critic based in New York.