You likely know the origin story: One winter evening two decades ago, German artist Barbara Probst ascended to the roof of her twenty-five-story New York City studio building. She arranged twelve cameras on tripods, including some of the mechanical room set atop the building. She was wearing a graphically distinct outfit: silver and black pants, a white hooded sweatshirt, black shoes. At precisely 10:37 p.m., she ran across the roof. As she passed in front of the cameras, an assistant triggered a flash while the lenses took in the scene.
The resulting artwork, Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., features a dozen roughly poster-size prints. Probst appears in each picture: sometimes from a distance, sometimes from above, sometimes in color, once as only a pair of legs. These photographs have a certain noir charm, as would any picture that features a solitary figure in an empty expanse amid the city’s sodium-lit bustle. But the cumulative effect of her images is greater than their individual power. The multiplicity of perspectives appears to prolong the cameras’ “decisive moment,” opening the possibility to richer meaning without introducing temporal narrative. As Probst would later say, “Sometimes I think the space between the images is the most important part of my work.”
In the ensuing years, this in-between space has often been more complex—and inhabiting it more intellectually rewarding. Let’s take another New York City artwork, made in spring 2013, as an example. Exposure #106: N.Y.C., Broom & Crosby Streets, 04.17.13, 2:29 p.m. also features twelve photographs, some in color and some in black-and-white. The cameras have not one environment—the city’s roofline—but two: an apartment interior and the street intersection below. The artwork’s twelve pictures are exhibited in a grid, and the sixth (reading left to right, top to bottom) offers an angled, overhead vantage point that explicitly recalls the first photograph in Exposure #1. But the visual scanning and mental gymnastics required to interpret the artwork are far more eventful. In Exposure #1, the challenge, on your first visual pass, is to locate Probst within each composition. It can be done relatively quickly because the setting is legibly consistent. But in Exposure #106, the shifts are more disorienting—even if, in the end, the spaces described by the pictures are no less coherent.
Spaces, plural: the two arenas depicted—the apartment, the street—are the first thing that makes these cognitive leaps more challenging. Your eyes begin with a street scene, then move to a close-up of a half-eaten apple, then to the side of a taxi. The fourth picture, of a person reaching for an apple, is a new challenge because, despite the familiarity of the setting, the vantage point makes that apple appear uneaten. Is it the same one? Such confusions reverberate throughout the twelve panels. After making one hundred “simultaneous exposures,” Probst has developed a masterful command of color, composition, and content; it seems like she can stretch and mold the viewer’s encounter with these pieces. Every detail is accounted for.
Probst’s multi-panel artworks, and the careful decisions that lead to them, lay bare the components that make up what she calls the “system” of photography.
Or is it? The complexity of Exposure #106 not only stems from how Probst blends images of people, arrangements of objects, and specific places, or from how she juxtaposes close-ups and distant views. It also originates in what’s happening on the street, which is what happens on all city streets: unstructured activity. You can’t control a busy New York intersection any more than you can choose your own parents. The taxi that features so prominently in these pictures: does its driver know he is being photographed? What about the people standing at the curb waiting for it to pass? The likely answer is no. Probst’s work, with its tightly woven internal spatial arrangements, suggests meticulous preparation. She has said that she makes diagrams and even designs figurines and maquettes to plan out her photo shoots. And yet, as Exposure #106 suggests, preparation cannot eliminate contingency. As she has noted, “There is a great deal of randomness involved in the process.” She adds, “[It is] a fact that I gladly accept, the same way I accept the mistakes when they happen.”
Probst’s dependence on forces beyond her control, as with all artists, extends to the viewer’s encounter. She prints her photographs large enough that the people depicted within them are approximately life-size, enabling something of a reciprocal relationship between them and the viewer. And by hanging these prints in long lines, or tall grids, or spanning a corner of the room, viewers often have to turn their heads or walk from side to side in order to take them in. Probst cannot govern the order in which people take in her pictures or how well or poorly they comprehend the spatial complexity of her settings.
The value of Probst’s artworks, however, stems from more than enticing viewers to imagine three-dimensional scenes, or from leaving herself open to the unexpected and initing viewers to do the same. Their importance also arises from her ability to entice us to think about how the camera’s limitations structure what we see. Her multi-panel artworks, and the careful decisions that lead to them, lay bare the components that make up what she calls the “system” of photography. “From the beginning of my involvement with photography I was drawn to use the medium to figure out what a photograph actually is and how it functions.” Every photograph, Probst knows, is no more than a slice of a given scene, and that to carve up a scene is to distort it. An increasing number of people with no special interest in artistic photography are discovering this through, for example, the exaggerations of social-media photography. Few artists, however, draw explicit attention to this apparatus as thoughtfully and artfully as Probst does.