I reviewed an exhibition by Barbara Probst in 2006, put her in an exhibition in 2014, and was pleased when she invited me to write for the catalogue accompanying her current exhibition at the Kunsthalle Nürnberg. In this essay, I expanded upon the two artworks, Exposure #1 and Exposure #106, that were the focus of my earlier engagements with Probst’s art to meditate on what cameras can and cannot see, how that relates to what we know about vision, and how the two model ways for us to think about how we relate to each other.
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.
The “system” Probst refers to includes all of the technical and artistic decisions that go into capturing the images: how many pictures complete the artwork; what cameras, film, and settings to use; and how to compose and light each shot. It also encompasses the aforementioned decisions about her artworks’ presentation, such as the prints’ scale and arrangement on the wall. She has employed her simplest revelation since her first Exposure: including in the photographs the equipment used to create them. What the differences between that artwork and Exposure #106 make clear, however, is one final element in the “system” of photography: what we bring to the viewing of photographs. We each carry within us a deep reservoir of image archetypes. We quickly recognize not only the stylistic conventions of genre—portrait, still life, cityscape—but also their emotional resonances. (As we take increasing numbers of pictures, we also, knowingly or not, reproduce those conventions.) Through another relatively simple but consequential choice, the blending of several visual traditions in one Exposure, Probst taps into that cultural repository to make her artworks dynamic and profitably strange.
She picked up on this power relatively quickly; one can watch her develop an understanding of how to mix genres across the first few works in the series. But Exposure #14: N.Y.C., 53rd Street & Park Avenue, 11.25.02, 1:32 p.m. reveals this mastery with extreme efficiency: its three photographs, made in a physical space of only about 160 square feet, draw from three distinct portions of our collective visual memory. On the left is a busy sidewalk, the kind familiar from the postmodern street photography made famous in the 1960s by figures like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. As with their work, this picture is obviously taken by someone standing or walking in the same space as the people depicted. Also like its 1960s-era precursors, this picture includes some tension between the two male figures walking perpendicular to each other, some “period details” in the form of parked vehicle, and a street sign that orients the scene cartographically. This is undoubtedly New York.
The middle picture removes nearly all such context and could be a tear sheet from a William Klein fashion shoot. It is taken from a lower vantage point; the curves of the man’s billowing coat contrast with the dark rectilinear grid of office-tower windows. The man wearing a scarf, a significant component of the first picture, is here partially occluded, reduced to background texture.
The third picture is also shot from a lower vantage point, but it fully undermines the sobriety of the first two images. Here two people, obviously tourists, pose before what New Yorkers and architecture buffs recognize as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, an icon of mid-century modernism. They smile broadly and lean toward each other slightly, emphasizing their intimacy as they share this special occasion. In the background you can clearly see the man holding the camera that made the left-most picture; between these tourists’ legs you can see a pair of feet that you can assume belong to the person holding the camera that made the middle shot. But that information is of secondary importance to the contextual whiplash of street photograph, fashion photograph, vacation picture.
A more subtle version of this genre blending occurs in Exposure #70: Munich studio, 04.10.09, 3:03 p.m., which features two protagonists seen by two cameras. These are decidedly portraits, or what Probst would call “close-ups.” Each subject stares directly into the lens of one camera, but both compositions also include the person looking at the other camera, thereby destabilizing this one-to-one relationship and leaving the viewer uncertain of her position. Both pictures offer a direct address, mediated through the eyes, and an indirect address in which the viewer gazes at a subject who cannot look back. Probst simultaneously upholds and subverts the rigid convention that says, “Look into the camera.” But there’s more: these faces hover behind a plastic bottle, a jar, a mug, a drinking glass, and a can—an artificial and slightly out-of-focus mountain range that further unmoors the scene. Probst’s characters are in focus but in the background, with a modern version of a painterly tradition—the table laden with vessels—between them and the camera. Unlike Exposure #14, in this artwork the blending of genres happens within each image. More recent artworks are even more richly braided; Exposure #141: N.Y.C., 368 Broadway, 02.21.19, 6:43 p.m., for example, includes motifs from the still life, portrait, interior, nude, and vanitas traditions.
Throughout her two-decade exploration of simultaneous exposure, Probst has taken elements that we think we know and flipped them, combined them, and otherwise rendered them unfamiliar. She recognizes that, in any given moment, the camera offers only a limited perspective on a given scene—and even twelve cameras strategically arranged provide only a partial account. This reflects how we experience reality: as she put it in an interview, “at any given moment human perception is naturally limited to a more or less small detail of the world.”
Science underscores the point: the brain, notes Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is a “machine for jumping to conclusions.” It extrapolates from partial information to save time and effort. The eyes, we now know, only see with clarity a small area directly in our line of focus; we process the rest of our environment minimally until our focus shifts. Virtual-reality programmers, those responsible for technologically expanding the “system” of photography, have mimicked this biological constraint: using eye-tracking techniques, the software renders in high resolution only the area of an image that currently holds your focus. Everything at the edges of your field of vision is rendered in lower resolution, effectively blurring it. They trust that your brain will “fill in the blank.”
Probst recognizes that, in any given moment, the camera offers only a limited perspective on a given scene—and even twelve cameras strategically arranged provide only a partial account.
As Probst has noted, “it is amazing that in life we hardly sense the ‘restriction’ of our field of vision to a small detail of the world.” Or that we think of it only rarely when assessing the information that pictures convey. Probst’s Exposures continually remind us, however, that sometimes these shortcuts carry costs. Kahneman, writing about the brain, continues: “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information.”
You could argue that viewing artworks does not qualify as a high-stakes situation. But I would counter that it’s healthy to be reminded that what we see is not always what’s there. We benefit from looking at situations from multiple vantage points, from practicing the empathy we need to overcome our biggest challenges. And as images increasingly become a form of speech—think of how you use emojis and GIFs—our talent for interpreting them, for understanding the constraints of their grammar, is all the more important. Again, it’s the spaces in between, the ones Probst believes are central to her artistic practice, that become the most important. It serves us well to search for clues, nuances, and meaning, whether in her Exposures or in the world around us.