It Could Be Like That
On Barbara Probst’s Exposures
The photographic series Exposures by Barbara Probst involves street scenes, close-ups, still lifes, nudes, landscapes, studio and fashion photography. The multipart series and tableaux, which consist of up to fourteen individual pictures, were created in a specific way: they capture a single moment simultaneously from various perspectives using cameras that are synchronized by a radio-controlled shutter release mechanism. Using this method, multiperspective views of one event are intertwined due to their simultaneous creation. This body of work, which currently consists of about 160 pieces, thwarts basic parameters of perception: humans can only grasp a situation from one point of view, since it is impossible to assume multiple positions at once. Different vantage points can only be occupied at different moments since the succession of sequences cannot be halted.
“What we see isn’t what we see but what we are,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in his Book of Disquiet. 1 It is indeed true that people do not see the world as it is. They simply see their own concept of the world. The model of reality that people have created remains a construct and is intrinsically relative. Since each person’s perception differs from that of any other person, no individual’s truth is com- pletely shared by others. Photography is nevertheless expected to reproduce an event or an object in an authentic and realistic way. Photographic documents possess an extraordinary credibility, and we firmly believe in their ability to bear witness.2 Photographers such as August Sander were convinced that they were able “to see things the way that they were and not as they were sup- posed to be or might be.”3 So it is rare for us to consider while viewing a photograph that the way reality is transferred to the photographic image the moment a picture is taken is the result of a well-founded decision on the part of the photographer.4 We do not bear in mind that the situation captured in a photograph may not have been this way, but is merely seen thus. However, the multiple perspectives in Probst’s work make it obvious that instead of replicating reality itself, photography actually reflects an infinite number of possible views of reality. In the words of the artist, the photograph stands for “the possibility of a depiction of this moment and not for the depiction of this moment.”5 Her Exposures prove that, even at exactly the same moment, if we as viewers only minimally change our position the world’s appearance can be different and a situation can be interpreted differently. This insight, which is a familiar concept in perception psychology, neces- sitates a general scrutiny of our concept of reality as well as our personal perception: how can we universalize our outlook if the same moment can be perceived in such different ways?
The Kunsthalle Nürnberg is presenting an impressive selection of Exposures, beginning with the first work in the series, Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., which was created in 2000 on the roof of a high-rise in New York. The twelve-part tableau shows the photographer from various perspectives as she jumps on the roof at night. The technical means as well as the resulting photographic interpretations become the focus; the actual motif seems to be secondary. In this first tableau Probst combines color and black-and-white pictures, a method that she repeatedly used in subsequent works to emphasize the heterogeneity of the individual images. A black-and-white photograph suggests a temporal shift and seems— especially if the viewer is aware of the simultaneity involved in making the images—strangely antiquated in comparison with a color photograph.
This approach is still used in the recent Exposures from 2020, of which several examples are shown in the exhibition in the Kunsthalle Nürnberg, thus spanning a time period of over twenty years. The triptychs Exposure #150: N.Y.C., Prince & Mercer Streets, 04.08.20, 2:19 p.m. through Exposure #158: N.Y.C., Grand & Mercer Streets, 06.10.20, 11:46 a.m. were taken in New York during the shutdown necessitated by the COVID pandemic. The streets and squares of the city are abandoned; the hyperactive hustle of the business world has come to a standstill. Shops, such as Zadig & Voltaire or Alexander Wang, have been boarded up to protect them from vandalism. Advertising has been temporary suspended, and the buildings are resting until they awaken from their deep sleep. The series all feature a young woman who is standing in the deserted streets of New York, streets that are only familiar when they are filled with count- less people, cars, buses, and taxis. Inevitably we also imagine the acoustic components that represent the accelerated reality of modern civilization. We associate these scenes with the annoying honking of countless cars, the loud sirens of the ambulances and fire trucks, the booming of jack hammers and construction machines, a Babylonian babble of voices, and all of the other noises that contribute to the cacophony of the metropolis.
Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1931 essay A Short History of Photography that photography has the ability to expose the “optical unconscious” in the same way that psychology reveals the “instinctual unconscious.”6 Perhaps it is this capacity of photography that contributes to the fact that unspecific places are often made visible. In our everyday life we would merely pass by these streets, and our perception of them would be involuntary. In a photograph, however, these places are suddenly revealed to us. They become an event with their own poetics, since our perception shifts and the hierarchy changes. In Probst’s recent pictures this observation is addi- tionally advanced by the unaccustomed state of standstill. Architectural and urban details are revealed that we would probably have not noticed in everyday life: the aesthetic quality of a bike path defined by lime-green pavement; the abstract drawing of the lane markings; color fields designating bike paths or bus lanes that take on an unintended visual appeal; the arrangement of cobblestones and the structure of façade designs: all of the random graphic and sculptural forms that can be found in urban space.
In her compositions, street photography takes on the appearance of a still life in which selected, symbolic objects are artfully staged as if on a stage.7 Each detail of the arrangement, even the apparently incidental ones, acquires a new importance in a still life. In the current triptychs, urban architecture, street furniture, and the model are united in a complex way, and their inter- play seems to be a paradigm for life that is frozen and motionless. Even the young woman— who in each of the three-part works is not only shot from three different angles, but also from three varying distances—seems to be totally static: she does not pose, her posture seems nondescript, and her gaze into the distance is vague. She stands at the intersection like a vase on a table. In his 1953 novel The Erasers, the French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote: “But it is still too early, the street door has just been unbolted, the only person on the scene has not yet recovered his own existence.”8 In the early hours of the morning people seem like stage props, and the author assigns to them the same role as the twelve chairs that “gently come down from the imitation marble tables where they have spent the night.”9
Perhaps the wee hours of the morning and an official shutdown have something in common: they are moments in which the accelerated reality of the modern age retreats and makes way for an alternative and subjectified temporality. Time seems strangely stretched and transports a special kind of alertness in which the purported insignificance of everyday life is unexpectedly revealed. Barbara Probst writes about these series: “In these works I was especially interested in the psychological aspect. I wanted to translate the sudden and unexpected forsakenness of people, the abrupt cessation of the usual energy and movement, and this jarring stillness, like after an accident, into pictures. I was deeply impressed by the conspicuously morbid melancholy and beauty that challenged everything that this energized, success-oriented city stood for. During the entire shutdown period I was lost in my work on the streets of my neighborhood, which also offered me a way of staying sane in the disaster.”10
The Exposures investigate traditional photographic genres such as the portrait, the still life, and the nude as well as street photography and fashion photography. It is striking that the works cannot be simply attributed to one single genre. In many cases they are simultaneously street photography and still life, still life and nude, fashion and street photography, fashion photography and close-up, close-up and still life. The subject matter in the series and tableaux is cleverly chosen by linking them with innovative and personal issues. One essential aspect is the reflection on the possibility of liberating oneself from knowledge of a specific image tradition. How is it possible to have a fresh gaze that breaks with existing tradition and iconography?
The close-ups, for example, usually show one or two protagonists twice, from slightly different angles but taken at precisely the same time. Probst avoids the term “portrait”: instead of being individual likenesses, the close-ups focus on the interaction of the depicted person or persons with the viewer and his or her viewpoint. Each individual picture shows two protagonists, one of whom looks directly into the camera and thus achieves direct eye contact with the viewer. The various locations of the camera are reflected in the viewer’s physical location. The close-ups show something that can never be experienced in the viewer’s everyday life, since to make this mutual gaze possible he or she would have to be in different locations at the same time. This is the basic dilemma for the viewer: is it at all possible to identify with different perspectives at the same time, or is he or she forced to continually jump back and forth between the con- ceptual options?
The still lifes Exposure #138 to Exposure #143, which were created in 2018, show mysterious and carefully composed stagings. Unlike the earlier street photographs, chance is eliminated in these works. As is appropriate for the genre of still life, time seems to be stopped: broken porcelain, spilled milk, a body lying on the ground or collapsed on a table, represented by an arm or a foot as a pars pro toto. The dramatic staging of these still lifes, which vaguely resemble scenes of crimes, contribute a cinematic quality to the images. Barbara Probst’s individual pictures of the series and tableaux often seem like film stills that inevitably raise questions about the source of the scenario and compel viewers to search for possible answers.
It is quite natural for different perspectives, angles, and shots to be used during a film scene. In a film scene, space, context, and psychology can be shifted by means of different shots. Since filmmakers show a chronology of images, and not just a moment from a continuum as a photographer does, they have stronger means to influence the viewer. Instead of leaving the interpretation of the plot up to viewers, the filmmaker guides them in an interpretational direction. Probst does this, too, in her image series and tableaux by using different perspectives, angles, and framings. She uses bona fide cinematic tools including focused details and the distance required for long shots. However, her series represent just a fraction of a second, a moment, the blink of an eye, within the temporal continuum, which is an explicit difference to film. Since there is no chronological succession of motifs, no before or after, the pictures can spatially expand in the viewer’s imagination. The two-dimensional photographs become a three-dimensional overall picture of a moment. Each individual image provides new insight on the scene captured in the photograph. Inevitably viewers develop a spatial notion of the moment and use their imagination to fill in the gaps between the individual pictures—the nature of which the photographs give no information whatsoever. This process requires intellectual complicity as well as physical movement: the series often show more than viewers can perceive from one point of view, thus widening the space extending the viewing field into a panorama. Sometimes the recipient must walk along the multipart series to find an interpretation for the event that the camera has captured.
The viewer’s presence and movement in space become an essential part of the work and complete it. The sequence of pictures in space and its size create a choreography of looking and moving for the viewer. “Basically my work is completed by the viewer; it doesn’t work with- out the viewer. A picture by Mondrian is, so to speak, complete on its own, it doesn’t need the viewer, but my works need the viewer to fill in the gaps that are actually created in the work.”11
Barbara Probst is fascinated by writers and filmmakers, such as Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe- Grillet, and Jean-Luc Godard, who broke with classical narrative form in the 1960s: “Their way of storytelling was to go against the expectations of the reader or viewer by creating cracks and gaps in the story or by unexpectedly changing the perspective. They treated the narrative not unlike a Cubist painter treated space . . .”12 In 1960 Jean-Luc Godard made a break with the classic Hollywood technique of continuity editing when he introduced the jump cut. This decisively changed the role of viewers, who now had to complete the story themselves by finding their own explanation for what had been omitted in the jump cut. The Exposures also point out these cracks and gaps that require completion through the viewer. Due to the lack of a chronology, the series do not follow a clear narrative, explicitly avoiding a one-dimensional and imposed interpretation. Barbara Probst completely does away with emotional symbolism and Pathosformeln, or “pathos formulas,” that the viewer might immediately identify and be able to place as part of cultural visual memory. The artist minimalizes the narrative character of each shot through the ambivalent gestures and facial expressions of the protagonists and the ambiguous interactions and props, and she searches for a scene that is open and ambiguous in its interpretation.
In November 2016 Barbara Probst photographed the spring/summer 2017 collection campaign for the Milan-based fashion company Marni. In addition to the pictures produced for the label to advertise their products, the triptychs Exposure #120, #121, and #122 were created. These works show a constellation of four models who are photographing each other. Their individual features are hidden behind the cameras that they hold to their faces. The black cables that join the cameras to the computers behind the set create an intertwined structure on the white studio floor. Each individual shot represents the individual perspective of one of the women, who also were entrusted with deciding about the position of the camera, the motif, the framing, and the shot. Barbara Probst merely determined the moment that the shutter was released, which in this case was simultaneously released by a centrally controlled mechanism. The aesthetics of these pictures is vaguely reminiscent of the British film Blow-Up, which was awarded the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. In the opening scenes of the film the director Michelangelo Antonioni shows the fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) circling around the model Veruschka von Lehndorff with his camera during a photo shoot. While in the film the (male) authorship is unchallenged and the models are unabashedly referred to as “dolls,” “little ladies,” and “birds,” Barbara Probst transfers core issues of creating images onto the protagonists and thus thwarts the traditional idea of role distribution, authorship, and control. There is another basic parallel to Blow-Up: like Exposures, the film also examines the central question of the relationship of photography and reality. The photographer Thomas is convinced that he has unconsciously documented a murder with his camera. Yet in the enlargement—that is, when the image is blown up—the image of the body dissolves in the graininess of the photograph.
The five diptychs Exposure #124: Brooklyn, Industria Studios, 39 South 5th St, 04.13.17, 10:39 a.m. through Exposure #128: Brooklyn, Industria Studios, 39 South 5th St, 04.13.17, 6:45 p.m. were commissioned by Vogue Italia and were published in 2017. For the editorial, a make-up special, Probst photographed five close-ups that feature the same identical twins. In two of the diptychs—Exposure #125 and #126—the twins’ faces are transformed into small paintings by the makeup artist, which is like a picture within the picture. Probst reacts to these in her choice of props and background colors. The other three close-ups show the sisters together, sitting opposite two cameras. The moment that the shutters are simultaneously released, each twin is looking at one of the two cameras. In this way each single picture shows one protagonist who is engaged in direct eye contact with the viewer. The jarring effect caused by uniting both cameras in one position is made even stronger by the uncanny similarity of the twins in the close-ups. This series, too, again takes up the genre-crossing concept: the twins are sitting at a table on which numerous objects—including food and drink, carafes, jugs, and glasses as well as drooping flowers—that form complex still lifes. Exposure #125 even integrates a lemon, whose rough surface is a familiar element in the history of still-life painting. Lemons provided painters with a stage on which to show off their formal virtuosity and also called for a direct comparison with contenders. Apart from these reminiscences, the arrangements are explicitly rooted in the present: objects such as plastic bottles with intensely colored liquids, a jar of cherries, and a roll of red tape are to be seen here as well as lipsticks, perfume flacons, and vials of makeup, referring to the context in which the image was made. Nevertheless, the cosmetics that are integrated into the still lifes give no details about the producer, for example. The articles appear abstract and universal, bringing the Pop artist James Rosenquist to mind, who used lipsticks and other consumer goods in his iconic monumental panoramas.
In 2018 Probst was commissioned by the British architecture and fashion magazine Wallpaper* to do an editorial that was created over the course of a day at an intersection in SoHo in New York. The diptychs Exposure #137.1 through #137.6 show the models from two distances, taken with one stationary camera and a second one whose position varied. All protagonists are dressed in showy, bright-colored clothing. The recurring animal prints awaken associations of the legendary urban jungle. The picture series, which covered six double-page spreads of the magazine, gives the results of this photo shoot in chronological order. Turning the pages encourages the perception of the progression of time, which is also documented in the photographs by the changing shadows. The editorial thus followed a concept that was clearly defined ahead of time: keeping the position of one of the cameras stationary and releasing the shutter over the course of the day in an almost systematic manner. In this way Probst plays with Conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s, making reference to artists such as Douglas Huebler, who often photographed in the urban canyons of Manhattan.13 In these pictures, as well as in all of the other works she created in the fashion context, there is an attempt to shift the hierarchies. Fashion and cosmetics, the real reason for the pictures, are relegated to being one of many elements of design. They are a means to the end. The focus, however, is—as is the case with all of the other series and tableaux of Exposures—on the central issue of the perception of the viewers, who are challenged to analyze and critically question as well as observe themselves.
Barbara Probst began exploring nude photography after the fashion shoots, in which the clothing, hair, and makeup of the models naturally had a great relevance. These components were completely eliminated in the nudes so that she could work with the body as a sculpture that is created with photographic means. Similar to her subsequent nudes, the first triptych Exposure #129: Munich, Nederlingerstrasse 68, 08.11.17, 6:02 p.m. shows only fragments of a woman’s body: the bent left leg lying on the right knee; the left elbow supported on the bent leg; the right forearm and part of the hand that holds the crossed leg by the ankle. The extremities form diagonals, verticals, and parallels, creating a virtually architectural composition. Due to the strong fragmentation it is again up to the viewer to imagine the fragments as part of a voluminous body.
When we look at a human face, it inevitably becomes an individual for us, a counterpart with feelings, with a biography. None of Probst’s nudes show the face of the model, since the intimacy that would result from that is not her intention. For this reason, the women seem to be self-referential. They do not interact with the potential viewer outside of the picture, but instead with the cameras, which determine the composition as additional protagonists. In all of these pictures cameras on tripods are visible. They are focused on unclothed bodies, which stand pars pro toto for all bodies, and become accomplices, representatives of the viewer within the picture. The visibility of the cameras displays the viewers’ own way of looking: for the view of one of the cameras is inevitably their view. In addition they see the other cameras and therefore the gaze of the others.
The spatial constellation is reminiscent of the academic study of the nude, in which the model stands in the center and is surrounded by the art students. From time to time the nude model, who stands on a revolving platform, is turned so that the body is visible from all perspectives. Over time the temporally shifting angles are pieced together in the imagination of the draftspeople or sculptors. These parallels seem to exist in all of Probst’s Exposures. Her cameras, which number up to fourteen, always surround the event like art students around a model. This approach was specifically shaped by her studies of sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where she studied in addition to her year in the photography class of Bernd Becher in Düsseldorf. The picture series and tableaux of the Exposures show that for Probst photography developed from sculpture and from a spatial approach. Working with the body in the context of nude photography is for her a natural and logical return to the beginnings of her career.14
Part of our fascination with photography is due to the fact that it is able to record the present, this entrancing moment between the past and the future. People have trouble doing this because, unlike the past and the future—which they can remember or yearn for—the present is a fleeting chimera. We inhabit a narrow strip of the present, to either side of which are two types of nonbeing: the no-more of the past and the not-yet of the future. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “The past is no longer; the future is not yet; as for the instantaneous present, everyone knows that this does not exist at all but is the limit of an infinite division, like a point without dimension.”15 It seems that dealing with the present is one of the central dilemmas that humans face with the phenomenon of time: time is primarily linked with the present in which we live and exist. Nevertheless the experienced moment is an eternally white spot: it is right in the middle of the present and cannot reflect on it, since reflection requires distance. At the same time, as Probst also describes it, “now” is the only thing that we “really” experience.16 The present is authentic in a way that past and future can never be, because they are always being interpreted through our concepts: “We don’t see what we see, but what we are.”17 The present, this moment that cannot be shared, that can hardly be stretched, is also perceived as permanent: as long as we live, this moment of the present does not stop. There is always now. Photography makes it possible to capture this moment, to freeze it. The irreversible flow of time is selectively preserved. Barbara Probst’s Exposures show us, nevertheless, that even with photography we cannot gain any certainty about the factuality of the moment. Because reality is not this way or that. It is this way and that.
1 Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith (New York: Penguin, 2002), 371.
2 “A sort of basic agreement about the fact that the photographic document faithfully reflects the world seems to prevail. It is believed to possess extraordinary credibility, a unique measure of reality. And this proximity to reality that is expected of photograph, this inviolable ability to give testimony, is mainly due to the awareness of the mechanical production process and its specific constitution and existence, based on the knowledge of the so-called automatism of its technical genesis.” See Philippe Dubois, Der fotografische Akt: Versuch über ein theoretisches Dispositiv (Amsterdam and Dresden: Phil Fine Arts, 1998), 29. Unless otherwise noted, all translations here are by Tas Skorupa.
3 Gunther Sander, ed., August Sander: Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1980), 10.
4 “Because before and after this moment when the world is naturally recorded on the light-sensitive surface there are gestures that are profoundly cultural, coded, and completely determined by human decisions (before: choosing a subject, a particular camera type, a film, an exposure length, the angle, etc. — all of these things that come before the decisive moment and culminate when the shutter button is pressed; afterwards: all of these decisions are repeated during the developing and printing; then the photograph is fed into the machinery of distribution that are always coded and cultural — newspapers, art, fashion, porno, science, justice, family . . .).” Dubois 1998 (see note 2), 55.
5 Barbara Probst, (Mis)Understanding Photography: Werke und Manifeste, exh. cat. (Essen and Göttingen: Museum Folkwang and Steidl, 2014), 30.
6 Walter Benjamin, “Kleine Geschichte der Photographie” , in Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser, vol. 2.1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 368–85, here 375ff.; published in English as “A Short History of Photography,” trans. Stanley Mitchell, Screen, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1972), 5–26, here 7.
7 See also the essay by Brian Sholis in this publication, pp. 90–99.
8 Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1964). 7.
9 See Alain Robbe-Grillet 1964 (see note 8), 7–8.
10 Barbara Probst, e-mail to author, August 30, 2020.
11 Thomas Honickel, “Interview mit Barbara Probst,” Photonews (April 2014), 14–15.
12 Barbara Probst, https://www.le-bal.fr/en/2019/05 /barbara-probst (accessed on August 28, 2020)
13 Barbara Probst, e-mail to author, September 15, 2020.
14 Other pieces in the exhibition also refer to this sculptural context, including the triptych Exposure #73: Munich studio, 08.21.09, 2:23 p.m., which shows three teenage boys in half-figure. The composition and posture refer to Auguste Rodin’s famous ensemble The Burghers of Calais (1889), a group of six individual sculptures in which Rodin did away with both the central figure and the main viewing side. In both there are subtle signs of movement and the spaces between the characters appear almost tangible.
15 Jean-Paul Sartre, Das Sein und das Nichts  (Hamburg: rororo, 1991), 216; published in English as Being and Nothing- ness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 159.
16 Barbara Probst, e-mail to author, April 15, 2020.
17 Pessoa 2002 (see note 1).