Interview with Barbara Probst in “Barbara Probst

As the daughter of a sculptor and having studied sculpture yourself, first at the Munich and then the Dusseldorf Academy, what led you to take up photography?

 

I would say I got sidetracked by photography towards the end of studying sculpture. While modelling and drawing from life, I tried to reproduce nature faithfully. I observed the nude model as accurately as possible and translated with my hands what I saw into clay. While working in this purely subjective manner, I became attracted to a medium which seems to have an objective aspect, a direct link to reality; in fact, photography records reality and transcribes it onto film through a technical procedure, in an apparently objective way. The German word for camera lens is Objektiv. From the beginning, I found this link to reality somewhat mysterious and questionable. The blend of reality and the illusory or the poetic seemed inherent to photography. The discrepancy between objectivity and mystery compelled me to take a closer look at the medium, and this has generated the work I’ve done over the last 22 years. Perhaps it was an effort to dismantle the sturdy armor of objectivity that we still want photography to wear.

On the other hand, I feel I never left sculpture behind. The different viewpoints of my cameras derive from my sculptural interest in looking at three-dimensional form and space from different angles, in order to understand it. I think I am still a sculptor, I just use photography as a medium.

 

Since your early works, vision has been a constant theme of your research.  Photography is a useful tool for questioning how we see and how we construct images in our minds. Could we say that, like the photographer, the observer plays an active part in the work, that he is capable of influencing and determining it through his subjective perception?

 

Subjectivity is fundamental in both the fabrication of the photograph and the process of perception. As much as I am interested in all the details of making a photograph, I also like to think about aspects related to understanding or reading the image.

The viewer of my work needs to become actively involved in it. In his mind, the images cease to be separate entities and start to play as a team. They connect, interact, and begin to make sense. Each viewer interprets the work a little differently, in the same way that we read books, see movies or taste food differently.

I am very interested in the fact that we all have our own ways of seeing and perceiving the world, depending on our point of view, but also on our physical and psychological condition, our life story and experience, our beliefs and knowledge. We are all here on this planet, right now, looking at the world, each of us under diverse conditions and circumstances. So it is not surprising that we come to different conclusions about our observations. But what fascinates me is that all our viewpoints have the same value. I have learned this from my work. When you photograph a scene simultaneously from various viewpoints you obtain images that are compatible and equivalent. They are also non-hierarchical, since they are tied to the same moment, just like we humans are tied to the here and now.

 

On  January 7, 2000, at 10.37 p.m., atop a roof on 8th Avenue in New York, you made the first of a long series of Exposures, works composed of two or more photographs portraying the same subject from different viewpoints. With the help of a remote control, you simultaneously triggered several cameras trained on the same event from various angles and distances. The Bressonian “decisive instant” was fragmented and dilated, questioning the photographer’s role and the relationship between photography and reality. How did you come up with this idea?

In my work, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s single point of view is broken up into many. I think that Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment” creates a myth around the photographer’s intuition to capture the perfect moment. I am interested in demystifying the photographer’s intuition. I’m asking why and how we make pictures, and also why and how we look at these pictures. I doubt that the perfect moment, the perfect point of view, the perfect intuition exists, and see every photograph as a possible representation, but not as the representation of a moment.

I was never interested in photography as a means to find or invent images. I’d rather use it to question the medium itself and all related aspects. I see the camera as representing a pair of human eyes that see a small detail of the world, and the photograph as representing the detail of the world those eyes see. So I think my work relates to our patterns of seeing and perceiving. Whether we look at reality or at photographs, our patterns kick in: we expect, recognize, confirm, reject and filter what we see.

In any event, I feel that photography as a medium is, at times, more influential in our society than reality itself.  The medium is too powerful and, at the same time, too controversial in its attributed truthfulness, for us not to consider these problematic issues while using it.

 

Your method, which on the one hand multiplies the points of view and on the other diversifies the moment of the shoot, is applied to different genres, from reportage to surveillance, portraiture, fashion photography and still life. What determines your choice of subject and the recurrence of what might be called cliché rather than extraordinary or singular situations?

 

It’s true that there is nothing extraordinary in the scenes I photograph. I am not interested in what is in front of the camera, but in how the camera sees what is in front of it. I’m interested in the way we see, not what we see. A photograph never represents the reality before the camera, but the photographer’s take on it. The truth in a photograph lies behind the camera, in the subjectivity of the photographer.

I want to make images that refer to what we already know: to the collective memory of pictures. Clichés couldn’t be  better known: images of the Bavarian Alps or New York, for example. Iconic images that we know from movies, advertising, magazines, the internet. But these pictures represent one perspective on the Alps or New York City streets. We rarely see such iconic images from a second, third or fourth point of view. In our everyday use of photography we accept the image as if it were the only possible representation of a moment. Showing more than one perspective means breaking up the absoluteness of the photographic image into fragments, and lifting the curtain on the realm of relativity in which photographs reside.

 

I was impressed by the meticulousness with which you prepared the model for your exhibition at the Triennale in record time. Making three-dimensional models is not only a way of planning your work in space, but has also been an integral part of your research. What part do space and time play in the composition of your works and how do you structure the sequences?

 

Time is simply a means to an end for me. But fundamental to all my series. The simultaneous moment ties the images of the series together and makes them comparable.

Space is at the heart of my production process. I think about and imagine space while planning and shooting a piece. When I set up the cameras for a shoot I often feel like a sculptor looking at a model or a scene from different angles. I build models of exhibition spaces to figure out the layout of the exhibition. I also make small models in preparation for shoots. Sometimes I create little figures of the protagonists in the shoot to get a clear idea of the spatial relationships between them. Aside from my imagination, three-dimensional models are the best way for me to work out how to put an exhibition or a shoot together. I guess this is, once again, the sculptor in me.

 

The exhibition title Poetry and Truth evokes the dual nature of photography, which is never a mere reproduction of reality, nor just a window through which to observe it. What part does photography play in the indeterminacy that characterizes our era?

 

It seems that we are currently in muddy waters. And perhaps that’s why there is such an enormous desire for determination and certainty. On the other hand, I sense a growing skepticism or uncertainty in societies, which may provide an opportunity to acknowledge that the truth is a slippery slope and not easy to arrive at. Anything that looks like the truth needs to be handled with care. And this is precisely photography’s tender spot: the medium’s unreliable alliance with reality.

I wonder when photography will be treated like painting, like an expression of the photographer and not simply the documentation of an event. If that were to happen it would signal a shift from unconscious acceptance of the given to a dynamic, inspiring search beneath the surface of things. Perhaps the way we deal with photography reflects the way we deal with our notion of truth. Like James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, we try to adjust reality to our desire, to our imagination, in order to avoid seeing what we don’t want to see.

Lorenza Bravetta
Poesia e Verità
2022