Different Angles

The point-of-view of any photograph is traditionally associated with the position of the photographer, which, combined with the freezing of action, has characterized the medium’s fundamental contribution to the representation of history and the technology of perspective. Indeed, that the term point-of-view is also used to suggest one’s position in respect to history might well indicate how far our thinking about events has been colonized by a photographic discourse. In the geometry of the perspective system used by photography, viewers inevitably inherit the viewpoint of the camera: this is what enables us to imagine ourselves “at the scene.”

The work of Barbara Probst disturbs the assumptions we make about this whole scenario. It is not simply that it disrupts the idea of seeing an event from a single point-of-view, it is rather that the work challenges the whole ideology of photography as a form of knowing through seeing. Looking at any of her series provides a delayed or slow shock to the senses. What initially appears as a collection of different or even random pictures gradually reveals itself as something far more coherent and strange as we realize that they show exactly the same scene depicted from different points-of-view.

Several cameras, fired simultaneously, have all recorded the same event at the same instant. Each one, with its own location and aesthetic conditions (long, short, or wide focal-length lenses, focus, depth-of-field, iconographic codes, and so on) presents us with a particular point-of-view. When these views are juxtaposed, the effect is totally surprising and much more than merely technologically interesting. In Probst’s works, spectators are suddenly put in a position where we no longer know which is the proper, correct, or true viewpoint. When we are offered two, three, or even twelve different renderings of the same instant, how can one be more “right” than the others? This is the dramatic truth of her work, which subtly challenges existing views of photographic veracity. We are made to see the difference that camera angles make.
These photographic works, all titled Exposures, literally expose and reveal the plurality of any event and the role that visioning plays in it. That is to say, they describe an event not only through what is seen, but also, crucially, how it is seen and represented. In Exposure 11B: N.Y.C. Duane & Church Streets 06.10.02, 3.22pm (2002), a young woman on a street is shown from two different camera angles. The left-hand picture, a color, street-level shot, shows her cycling within a busy urban space. We can see her face; her expression is taut, tense even, frozen in the action of riding. On the right, a black-and-white image depicts the same woman seen at the same moment from a different viewpoint, up high. While no longer the dominant element of the picture, she is still the key figure within the scene, which is flattened by the telephoto perspective. The railings that cut across the foreground suggest that the photograph was taken from a balcony. Juxtaposed with the color picture, this monochrome, aerial view begins to feel a little sinister, as if it were produced by a sniper or a surveillance camera. The title reinforces this feeling too, with its precise, forensic-minded information.

Exposure 11B triggers questions about what is involved in acts of looking and how we interpret what we see: Who is looking at this woman, and what is the significance of the “event” being photographed? Do these two pictures show the scene of a crime that has not yet occurred? An accident about to happen? The scene of something taking place that we cannot yet see? The viewer is invited to speculate and fantasize about what might be going on, even becoming, perhaps, an active moral witness to the imagined events. By showing the same moment from two completely different photographic viewpoints, the figure in the picture and the whole scene appear literally different according to how and from where they are seen. The two positions of vision and respective photographic codes offered in this work and all the other Exposures disturbs the very idea that photographs depict events “simply.”

Whether the event in question is historically important or whether it is a seemingly insignificant moment in someone’s life, the issue is, how do we see it? What is our experience of it? What can we know about such an event? Whose point-of-view are we occupying here? What has been photographed? Why is it an event? Probst’s work actively encourages such questions, offering a visual pleasure that is both interrogative and sometimes disorienting. Multiple viewpoints compel the viewer to interrogate them, opening up questions about what position it is that we occupy when looking at photographs.

Each of the works sets up quite different scenarios which vary, from studio environments to open streets, from rooftop to ground-level views, from daylight to flashlight, to photographer and photographed. Cameras invade some of the scenes, with tripods and the evidence of photographic activity laid bare, a technique of avant-garde disruption that reveals the means of production of photographs. Yet even these elements add to viewers’ exhausted fascination. The events photographed in the Exposures series appear as moments from everyday life that are acted out by various characters. Fictional, these allude to the myriad ways such moments are represented across various genres of photography: fashion, film, television drama, advertising, quasi-forensic scenes, family snapshots, street photography, and even performance art. Most often, Probst’s scenes show people “caught in the act” of doing something, renewing the viewer’s fascination with the instant and the instantaneous quality of the photographic image. Not only do these tableau scenes record people in motion, they have frozen them in time. This reveals a dual interest in both people’s motion and the potential meaning of those movements in their frozen state, opening up the question, what has happened to time in these photographs?

We are used to sequences of photographs that depict an event in time. Such sequences are related to the temporality of an event: its past, present, and future, for example, as seen in the famous works of Eadweard Muybridge. In such photographs, a single point-of-view is usually established to show the different temporal instants in a movement. Probst reverses this logic, to create a sequence, or better, an arrangement of photographs as the extension of a single moment in space, but not in time. The arrangements of her pictures are of an instant in time represented as a passage through space. Thus the idea (and ideal) of time is no longer a sequential representation: time is itself frozen as an instant, now seen from different angles. Probst turns a single instant into a question of spatial relations.

While cinema and television drama have become interested in showing different views of the same events, like the parallel stories of soap operas or the simultaneous lives of 24 (or differently, as in a bank of cctv video monitors), the effect is quite unlike that of Probst’s pictures. In her work, the simultaneity in the photographs results from the depiction of the same instant, rendered different by the spatial relation of the camera to that moment. What the pictures in the Exposures series show is that an instant is not just a moment in time but a spatial event too. There is no before or after, only a momentary appearance recorded by the cameras. It is precisely the static, still, and frozen feel of the pictures that helps the viewer animate his or her imagination regarding the past and future of the instant represented.

It is indeed rare to see a single moment depicted in a plurality of views. History painting, the art form most associated with the representation of actions and events, focused on the crucial moment of victory, seen from the viewpoint of the victors. In photography, the notion of the “decisive moment” continues this convention. Photojournalism, for instance, hardly ever shows us multiple views of a single instant. Its views are usually singular—it chooses its perspective on history. Probst’s work does not resemble photojournalism or documentary photography, even if she draws on the idea of the decisive moment in her own practice. In Exposures, her approach does not pluralize an event for the spectator, but rather pluralizes the spectator’s viewing experience of an event. Various points-of-view, which are never neutral, are opened up to the potential for multiple interpretations. It is from these multiple positions that the viewer can interrogate reality and its representation.

In the Exposure series, the spectator is presented with sets of juxtapositions in which relations between images are organized, opposed, or implied between the images themselves. Some works actually take the filmic theory of “shot-reverse shot” as their explicit theme. To seal the illusional space of the cinema, a shot of, say, a woman talking will cut to a reverse shot to establish her point of view. This reverse shot will not show the camera that is actually filming her, but rather the person to whom she is speaking. In Exposure 37: N.Y.C. 249 W 34th Street, 11.07.05, 1:13 pm (2005), we are shown the point-of-view of a photographer whose legs can be seen amid an array of tripods. Juxtaposed with this picture is a reverse shot of a photographer, now seen holding the camera with which the first picture of legs and tripods was taken. But which of these cameras was used to achieve the reverse shot? This work lays bare the ideology of the shot-reverse shot rule but also plays with it. The bank of tripods and the barefoot female figure also recall the studio set-up, a familiar scene in the well-known genre of glamour photography. There it is usually men who are creating the bank of cameras, casting their vision all over the female model. Here, men appear as “tripods.” In this piece, as in all of Probst’s works, the relationship between space and femininity is quietly explored.

The lead characters in Exposures are mostly young women. The work is not necessarily about who they are, or how they relate to space, but more about what their relationship is seen as being across photography, as a whole domain of representation. Thus it is not just a matter of the subjects’ appearance, or even their level of engagement with the camera; instead, it is the social space of photography itself that becomes the object of study. Probst is attentive, for example, to the rather astonishing difference that even a slight shift in the camera’s position can make. In Exposure 31: N.Y.C. 249 W 34th Street, 01.02.05 4.41pm (2005), it seems barely conceivable that both pictures were taken at the same moment, so strongly are we conditioned to see sets of images as a temporal sequence. Moreover, the assumed couple “look different” when one or the other glances at the camera, which changes everything in their relation to the viewer, and each other. This shows how we are “positioned” by the camera and recruited to its viewpoint through the logic of perspective.

The moment shown in a Probst Exposure is always spatialized, as though the position from which an event can been seen is constantly in question, and no one can be certain of its truth. This is why, although the history of camera angles has yet to be written, Probst’s work would be an excellent place to start. She interrogates the assumptions involved in looking at photographs by drawing our attention to the positions that the camera provides and the aesthetics that articulate them. Like all good work, her pictures make us see things differently. She asks us to think about types of looking and seeing, and about what fantasies are in play in photographic scenes. If the laws of perspective (inherited by photography from painting and the camera obscura) invite us to “identify” with the camera’s points-of-view, she helps us to see these as positions that are, in fact, not necessarily benign. While we might normally feel like innocent bystanders when we look at photographs—a sensation that is itself a product of the illusional system of perspective—that position is also called into question through her work. Our own viewing subjectivity is itself brought into the frame, as Probst asks us to consider what our viewpoints are about “the world,” understood as a politics of space. Although disorienting, this is also, paradoxically, one of the pleasures of her work.

David Bate
published in “Barbara Probst – Exposures”, ed. by Steidl Verlag in cooperation with Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, Göttingen