Dissected Moments

In Barbara Probst’s Exposure #39, two photographs depict the same woman at exactly the same moment, but in very different ways. On one side, a color image captures her as she strides through a bucolic, alpine landscape. On the other, a black-and- white picture reveals the color photograph to be an illusion: the woman is actually on the rooftop of a New York skyscraper, moving in front of a backdrop depicting an idyllic mountain scene.

In many ways, this diptych is a metaphor for Probst’s life. Born in Munich in 1964, she moved to New York in 1997 on a fellowship, staying on to pursue further professional opportunities and to be with the man who became her husband. Like many expatriates, Probst strongly identifies with two places but can obviously only be in one at a time. This truism is related to her work. Although the limitations of time and space constantly ground us in the present, we can be mentally in many places very quickly.

Probst’s Exposures make us feel the tension between being somewhere and imagining being somewhere else. Because her clustered pictures depict the same subject from various angles at precisely the same instant—a feat she achieves using radio controls, synchronized cable releases, and sometimes multiple photographers—they invite us to engage in a game of comparing and contrasting the locations of the cameras and photographers who took them. Despite the proximity of the cameras and the simultaneity of their exposures, the resulting images are extremely diverse in style, atmosphere, and content, concretely demonstrating that photographs are highly selective interpretations of reality. As her pictures subvert one another, they unsettle our faith in the idea of any sort of photographic “truth,” ultimately revealing the medium’s profound capacity to tell stories—and our propensity to believe them.

In Exposures Probst displays sensitivity to representational complexity, as she illustrates the myriad ways in which a moment can be depicted, and by extension, experienced. Her fragmented subjects and use of multiple perspectives have many art-historical precedents, including Édouard Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882), which shows the barmaid’s back reflected in the mirror at an impossible angle, or Georges Bracque and Pablo Picasso’s Cubist compositions that represent several sides of an object simultaneously. A photographic forerunner might be Ilse Bing’s Self-Portrait with Leica (1931), a Cubist-inspired image shot into a mirror, depicting the camera-wielding artist from multiple angles. Like all of these precursors, Probst rejects unified illusion and takes delight in confusing the viewer. And like Bing, her use of photography to emphasize the schism between reality and artifice exhibits recognition of the fact that, although photography does possess evidentiary value, it is incapable of delivering unambiguous meaning.

In a piece she made right before Exposures, Probst sequenced eighty slides so that each projected image always contained within it the one that preceded it. By continually unveiling a new context for each picture, every image undermined the one that came before, illustrating that it is impossible for a viewer to correctly deduce the circumstances that surround the production of a photograph. Exposures extends this investigation, demonstrating that it is not only when and where a photograph is made that determines our reading of it, but also how it is made. The meanings we extract from photographs hinge greatly on the position and technical set-up of the camera and the intentions of the maker, as well as the time and place in which they are experienced.

More choreographer than photographer, Probst makes two kinds of work: groups of pictures that show varying views of the same subject without revealing the cameras and photographers who made them, and images that actually document their own production through cameras aimed at each other. Like Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), a walnut cube containing a tape recording of the sounds of its own construction, this second strategy interjects process into perception. But even though these works eschew illusion by allowing us to understand how it is that we see what we do, they are no less complicated than the others. By creating a closed circuit of gazes that perpetually reflect one another, they complicate notions of subject and object, underscoring the photograph’s dependence upon both a machine and a maker.

Probst has long been interested in photography’s ability to blur distinctions between subject and object. In graduate school she studied sculpture, but instead of displaying three-dimensional objects, she exhibited black-and-white photographs of them. These pictures were intentionally neutral and appeared as if they had been pulled out of a museum exhibition archive. Each was labeled “Barbara Probst—Photogenic Works,” a play on words that left open the question of what exactly was photogenic, the sculptures or the photographs themselves. Provocatively, the sculptures were denied their identity as three-dimensional objects and translated onto a flat, paper surface that only the viewer’s imagination could expand in space.

Similarly, Probst’s Exposures interpose a spatial map onto our experience. Like architectural renderings that we might “walk” through in our minds, or Andy Warhol’s Dance Diagram (1962), which invites us to imagine our bodies moving through space, Probst’s work provides us with a plan of spatial relations that we piece together in our heads. Her Exposures invite us to imagine the spaces beyond the photographic frames, and where those spaces overlap, as well as the relationships between the photographers and their subjects. But we do not connect the images in a linear way; to experience them by mentally looking out from one photographer’s vantage point, and then another’s, requires us to continually back up to the same moment in time. Thus the idea of duration is complicated, and the inclination to fill in the “before” and “after” of her pictures—in other words, the narrative—is effectively discouraged.

For all of these reasons, Probst’s work stands out in the field of contemporary photography. It is not only photography about photography, which questions what it means to “read” images, but it is also art about the intermingling of perception and experience. Each Exposure is a mental puzzle that asks us to actively engage. By doing so, we are rewarded with a heightened awareness of the act of looking, and the opportunity to enter a transitive, uniquely imaginative state of moving through space and time.

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