Curators:Tamar Dresdner , Dr. Aya Lurie
Barbara Probst: Investigations in Photography
By: Shalom Shpilman
The exhibition “What Really Went On” is dedicated to two works by Barbara Probst (born in Munich, 1964; lives and works in New York)—a contemporary conceptual artist, a pioneer in the field of photography, whose work is being exhibited in Israel for the first time by the Shpilman Institute for Photography. Both works demonstrate the complementary perspectives typical to Probst’s investigations, which essentially undermine accepted basic (technical and thematic) concepts of photography. Prevalent answers to questions of truth, documentation and fiction, the relationship between photography and reality, modes of seeing and perception, points of view and perspectives, temporality and duration, photography and film are all reexamined by Probst with a fresh outlook, as reflected in the title of the exhibition.
Alongside the slide installation What Really Went On (1998-99), the exhibition is centered on a later group of photographs, Exposure #56 (2008). The slide installation already indicates Probst’s interest in inter-mediumal investigations and the personal nature of human perception, concerns whose manifestation in her work becomes more enigmatic and convoluted as it develops. The screening of the eighty slides generates image sequences, each of which contains the projected image in the previous transparency, presents new content and context, and undermines the understanding of its predecessor. Thus, for example, a landscape from horizon to horizon turns out to be a miniature landscape photograph in a closed room. The sequential viewing thus challenges the viewer’s ability to decode and construe the circumstances of the shooting, and mainly the moment of exposure and the creation of the photographic illusion.
Exposure #56: N.Y.C., 428 Broome Street, 06.05.08, 1:42 pm from the series Exposures, that began on July 1, 2000, is featured in the interior booth. The series expands Probst’s previous investigations of the medium with a question regarding the perception and reading of photographs, since the question here is not only when and where each photograph was taken, but also how and in what context. The field of meaning is determined not only by the location and timing of the photographic event, but also by the technical apparatus of the cameras and by the photographer’s intention.
Exposure #56 consists of ten photographs of a staged domestic situation, which both reveal and conceal—from several vantage points—five people present in a single room. Capturing all these people at one synchronized moment was made possible by means of wireless control devices installed on the cameras, some of which are visible in two of the photographs. The exposure of the “means of production,” usually kept out of sight, fundamentally undermines the pictorial illusion, as the multiple points of view raise a set of troubling questions: What do we see here? What do we not see? Is this a single occurrence and a single spatial continuum? What is the event and what does it mean? Should it be called a photographic event at all?
Probst illustrates the “sensitivity to representation” by presenting more and more modes of perceiving and experiencing of the same situation. This approach has many precedents in art history, since Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) or Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s cubist paintings, whose subject is not seen or experienced from one perspective, but rather deconstructed into different perspectives, and its reconstruction generates an artificial-realistic simultaneity. Probst’s photographs juxtapose different perspectives to form a kaleidoscope of views which are not necessarily held together in equilibrium. The difficulty in interpreting them is reinforced by the multiplicity of formal values: the varying dimensions (some of the photographs are displayed in “life size”); the changing coloration (sometimes in color, sometimes in black-and-white); close-up or long shot, from the right or from the left, from the side or from above; the uneven processing of the image (sometimes grainy, sometimes in focus); the lighting—all these demonstrate the materiality of photography and its personal experiential dimension as an artistic medium, coming at the expense of its indexical ability and unique capacity to capture and record facts. Ultimately, the work evokes a sense of incongruity between photograph and reality. The factuality seems suspicious, since the photograph cluster does not necessarily portray “what went on there.” Thus, Probst undermines one of the seminal axioms of photography—the belief in the “truth” inherent in the medium—while concurrently reconstituting it as an art form by all standards.
The diverse visibility of this cluster of photographs alludes to an abundance of familiar sources: magazine fashion productions, advertising photographs, family albums, televised situations, and even smart phone photography. This diversity highlights Probst’s interest in the research of visual culture, calling to mind Cindy Sherman’s series, Untitled Film Stills, which addresses the “cinematic” in general, while avoiding an exact reconstruction of a specific scene. By so doing, the work focuses on the archetypal elements that shape visual memory in contemporary culture. Against this backdrop, the main concern of the work under consideration here is not the depicted situation, but the necessary conditions of photography, which are imprinted in the production process of each photograph.
Photographs are usually singular; in fact, it is rare to find a single moment captured from different perspectives. The convention of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment,” for example, expresses this singularity in stark contrast to the photographs in the series Exposures, which do not duplicate the presented event, but produce a multiplicity of viewing experiences. Probst is therefore interested not in the “what” but in the “how”; not in the event itself, but in the space of visibility created around it. Furthermore, Probst does not only discuss the material nature of the photograph, but also focuses on what surrounds it, on perception and experience. Each group of photographs is a mental jigsaw puzzle that demands our involvement. The experiential immersion generates awareness of the act of seeing and provides extraordinary illustration of the imaginary movement in space and time, as the interplay between the photographs enhances the viewer’s experience. The multi-perspectival exposure presents us not with the referents of photography, but rather the process of perception itself, which takes shape while observing the images. Moreover, exposing the cameras present in the production mode, as a means of simulation, which is both one of its objects and its product, turns the lens on the viewer, who in turn becomes one of the figures observed and another component of the work. “We must conceive the perspectives and the point of view as our insertion into the world-as-an-individual, and perception, no longer as a constitution of the true object, but as our inherence in things,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in Phenomenology of Perception.1
Traditional observation of photography places the viewer in the camera’s place, enabling him to feel as if he were “inside the photographic event”. Probst’s works disrupt this “immersion,” and with it the belief in knowledge through observation. At first viewing, her works produce a sense of delayed shock, which becomes clear upon closer observation, once the visible is construed as the visual rift created in the photographic moment, the moment of the truth of exposure. At this moment, exposure is shifted, as it were; it oscillates between inside and outside, between the past and the elusive present that contains the entire space of possibilities in the visible field—a field which tends to remain hidden and invisible, ostensibly buried under the main theme of the photograph cluster.
The multiplicity typical of Probst’s works invites the viewer to imagine the spaces beyond the frame of the single photograph and the relationships among the photographs, and between the photographs and their referents. The connections between them are not linear. The idea of continuum or duration becomes complicated, and the attempt to define a “before” or “after” frequently fails, along with the attempt to reconstruct a narrative. Probst preserves the photographic happening in an indefinite state, leaving the space of possibility open by reducing the narrative links. Moreover, the relationship between the individual photographs in the cluster is not determined by a distinctive principle or by stylistic markers, and there is no formal or thematic affinity between them. They are related and connected to each other only in an abstract space-time, by their exposure to the camera at the same second. It should be noted that human consciousness experiences events and phenomena along a continuum, and it is this duration that constitutes our sense of being and identity. Different experiences are experienced at different times, and they are never observed simultaneously. Only God is all seeing and omnipresent. The experiential defamiliarization spawned by the multiple perspectives in Probst’s work prompts the viewer to take action: it simulates the sense of roving amid the photographs, in the intermediate space of their relationship among themselves and with the viewer, who moves back and forth, up and down, approaching and retreating, as an active participant (alongside the photographers and cameras) in the constitution of the visual field of meaning. The unification of perspectives produces insight into time-space.
Photography is commonly perceived as the freezing of an event. Probst’s works indeed evoke a cinematic sense of movement in the viewer, but unlike the photographic sequences that create the illusion of a linear stretch in time, from the past through the present to the future, Probst’s works direct one’s gaze toward temporality, to the time before, after and around, whose presence is inserted through the exposure of the multiple cameras participating in the production of the event. Movement of the kind created in Probst’s works brings to mind the pioneering photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, the first to shoot fast movement and the first to use a large number of cameras to create the illusion of movement based on the principle of continuity of vision. To illustrate movement, Muybridge used a battery of cameras placed in a line and operated one after the other. Thus his images do not provide information regarding the relations of movement in space, since they were not taken from a single perspective (hence, for example, animation created from still images of a galloping horse indeed demonstrates the anatomy of the body in motion, yet gives the impression that even in its motion the horse remains in place).
Probst inverts this logic, and produces a sequence of freeze- photographs relating to a single moment in space rather than to consecutive moments in time. The concept of time is not presented as a continuum, since time is frozen as an event that appears (differently) at different angles. While film and television are interested in obtaining different views of the same event, which nevertheless maintain a clear uniformity—the result in Probst’s works is completely different: the photographs’ simultaneity is refracted and deconstructed by the relations between the multiple cameras and the photographed moment, which is seemingly extracted from the continuity of time and becomes a spatial event. There is no before or after, only a momentary appearance captured by the camera to create that frozen, static feeling, urging the viewer to animate the concurrence of the presented moment.
The series Exposures creates moments that hover in time before a battery of cameras; moments of literal exposure—revelation or the removal of concealment, as that which defines the practice of photography. But even this exposure, essential to the medium, is presented as a necessary but insufficient condition in terms of its “truth” value, since photography is nourished simultaneously by removal, contrasting, reproduction, and appropriation. Photographs do not only show something, but also cause something else (such as other photographs) to disappear, and these other photographs do not necessarily provide a “more accurate description” in Probst’s work, but rather a wholly different field of possibilities, for both understanding and interpretation.
10 parts total, 4 parts: 112 x 144 cm , 2 parts: 91 x 61 cm, 1 part: 61 x 41 cm
3parts: 190 x 127 cm
10 parts total, 4 parts: 112 x 144 cm , 2 parts: 91 x 61 cm, 1 part: 61 x 41 cm
3parts: 190 x 127 cm