The Camera Makes the Human, Interview with Barbara Probst

Rosa Olivares: Your work conceals many overlapping layers. Some can be seen at first glimpse, but as one delves deeper and deeper new ones appear: connections to geometry, constructivism, architecture, the use of the human body as object. There are no psychological meanings, but simply forms and colour, the multiplication of a single image in many others, which are the same, and yet different. And then there is the influence of film, a very different formal and conceptual investigation diverging from contemporary photography. We are just beginning to appreciate all the possibilities that your work affords us. Maybe you could expand on these and suggest some new ones.

Your photography goes beyond the simple photograph as object. Time, synchronization and, in my mind, much more importantly, point of view, are essential aspects. Could you explain the reasons for working this way? What is the objective behind this way of constructing the pieces?

The synchrony of a larger and larger number of cameras (in “Exposure 1” there are 12 twelve cameras) all shooting simultaneously, is especially disconcerting to me. What are you after, working in this way?

Barbara Probst: From the outset I was drawn to use the medium of photography to figure out what a photograph actually is and how it functions. Basically, I was thinking about it as I was using it. I looked at all the elements of the “system.” From the process of the light falling on the film to the viewpoint of the photographer, from the grain on the film to the viewpoint of the viewer in front of the photograph, I was thinking my way through photography. In 2000 this preoccupation boiled down to the idea of using several cameras and simultaneously shoot one and the same thing from different points of views and distances. I expected this experiment to tell me more about photography’s nature and about its relationship with reality. So I set up 12 cameras on a rooftop and used myself as the protagonist, simulaneously releasing the cameras as I lept. The shoot generated 12 photographs that allowed me to compare them directly, since they were all tied to the same moment. This juxtaposition made me realize their inconsistency. Each image seemed to tell a different story although it showed the recording of the same event in the same moment. It took me several months to figure out how to go deeper into this problem and move on with my work. In the works which followed I was dealing with the discrepancy between the images by trying to increase it deliberately. Since then I have been working within the field of simultaneous exposure as it turned out to be a constant source of new questions and issues that provoke me to make new work.

RO: In most of your work the theme is also the photo shoot: posing sessions with models, people who take photographs, people who are in photographs, the photographic act itself…but interior and exterior architecture is gradually taking on importance as well. What connection do you suggest between the figures and the space?

BP: I am concerned with the viewer in the exhibition space as much as with the figure in the space of the images. A relationship between the two in my work is definitely intended. The decision to make the images relatively large, so that the figures in the images are life size, emphasizes this relationship. In life size the figures and the viewer become counterparts who look at each other.

The idea is to invite the viewer into the space of the image, turn him or her into a participant of a three dimensional tableau in which the space represented in the images and the real space (of the viewer) merge. Within this tableau each image of the series offers the viewer a recording of a different perspective onto the same thing in the same instant. By this means the images make him hold not only one viewpoint, but multiple viewpoints: as many as there are images in a series.

The merging of multiple viewpoints in the viewer’s eyes creates an effect of alienation (perhaps even in a Brechtian sense) and provokes the viewer to retrieve his or her position in space as well as to become aware of his or her role as the viewer.

RO: To what extent to you consider narrative in your work? Is it associated with a kind of fiction?

BP: I think the fact that we face multiple photographs, which provide different narratives about the same event at exactly the same moment, has an unsettling consequence for the narrative of each image. Since the narratives are all bound to the same moment they start to question one another and consequently they question the medium which generated them. They no longer come across as definitive as they do in an individual photograph. The relationship or the interaction between the different narratives reveals them as mere possibilities.

RO: How much importance do you place on the use of colour and black and white, to both in general, within the composition of your pieces? They are very structured in geometrical lines and spots of colour. Is it at times rather like a painterly approach?

BP: Color and composition are certainly my concern. They determine the form of the work. I don’t think a photograph without composition is possible. Perhaps only Evgen Bavčar, the blind photographer could convincingly say that he doesn’t compose. Every choice, be it the choice of detail or the viewpoint of the camera is a decision in regard to composition. I would say that in certain works I pay more attention to composition and color than in others. These formal means can influence the way the images of a series connect and relate, they can influence the reading of a series. Certain set ups result in photographs that function in a series very well, that is to say that hey can be perceived or read by the viewer easily as images that belong together and relate to one another. But there are setups that need much more consideration regarding the outcome of the images and the way they relate to one another in a series. These images tend to be more calculated in regards to color and composition in order to be read as a series tied together by a moment.

RO: How does film influence your work, in the way you approach it as well as in the construction of the images?

BP: The method of multiple viewpoints in my work relates to the use of multiple viewpoints in movie making. However the result in movie making is usually a chronological sequence of pictures, illustrating a narrative. The result in my work is a sequence of simultaneously shot images which somehow disrupt the narrative, as I described earlier. I think the cinematic feel in my work makes the disruption of the narrative even stronger, because it encourages the viewer to expect a narrative, which doesn’t develop.

Initially I didn’t aim for this affinity to film. But once I discovered it in my work, I was drawn to film of all genres to learn more about the methods and principles of movie making. I often employ certain ideas movie makers are dealing with. There is for example Godard’s (and Brecht’s) idea of the viewer’s alienation, or the idea of the “subjective camera” used by many filmmakers to depict what the protagonist is seeing. There is Dziga Vertov’s “man with the movie camera” a movie that shows to a large extend its own making. There are Hitchcocks deliberate and inventive ideas how to use a camera and frame a shot in order to make the narrative understood precisely as he wanted it to be understood. There is Italian Neorealism that merged the staged and the unstaged. To me a film by Eisenstein is as interesting as a new James Bond movie. There is a lot to say about the pacing in film then and now and how our ability to make sense of the montage in film developed since the first film was watched and today. I am thinking about these issues, since in a way it feels like with each new work I make a movie myself. But it always is a movie only about a fracture of a second.

Rosa Olivares
Exit 59, pp.92-101