Barbara Probst, Subjective Evidence

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Hartmann Books (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 28 x 28 cm, 164 pages, with 359 image reproductions (including installation views), including a catalogue raisonné of works from 2000 to 2023, a biography, and a bibliography. Also includes essays (in German/English) by Stefan Gronert, Fanni Fetzer, and Kevin Moore. Design by Martin Küchle. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Published to accompany exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Luzern (February 24–June 16, 2024, here), the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (September 27, 2024–February 9, 2025, here), and the Sprengelmuseum Hannover (December 12, 2024–March 9, 2025).

Comments/Context: An overdue retrospective exhibition of the work of the German photographer Barbara Probst began its tour this past spring in Switzerland, with stops to come here in the United States (sadly not in New York) and back in Germany. And of course, a hardbound catalog has been produced to accompany (and commemorate) these various museum exhibitions.

Typically such a volume would include a comprehensive listing of the works on view (with image reproductions of most if not all of the works), along with a handful of curatorial and scholarly essays providing a sense of artistic context, with perhaps even some further personal background in terms of a chronology of exhibitions, publications, selected press, and the like. Barbara Probst: Subjective Evidence dutifully checks all of these expected boxes, but does so in a crisply analytical way that feels smarter (and much more functional and useful) than most of the recent exhibition catalogs I’ve encountered.

One of the practical challenges faced by catalog makers for touring exhibitions is the reality that the show may not be exactly the same at every location; if a large number of loans are involved, some works may not travel to one or more of the locations, and the host institution may have holdings that it wants to incorporate that the other venues might not feature. Not to mention that the physical galleries will all be inherently different, leading to installation choices at each location that may require including or excluding certain works. But to take advantage of economies of scale, the catalog needs to be the same for all the venues, even if the specific list of works keeps changing from place to place.

Barbara Probst: Subjective Evidence elegantly solves this stubborn problem. The catalog begins with full spread reproductions of a deep selection of the works Probst has made most recently, in the past five years. Each work is given its own spread, with plenty of surrounding white space, and the works are organized chronologically so we can track her progression from idea to idea. This section is then followed by several essays illustrated with thumbnails along the top edge. The last third of the catalog (aside from the biography and bibliography) is a full catalogue raisonné of Probst’s photographic career, with all of the works made between 2000 and 2023, each illustrated with title/number, dimensions, and thumbnail images. The three main sections of the catalog are separated by full bleed installation images (in black-and-white) drawn from various Probst shows over the years, providing a sense for how the works have looked as installed on walls and in gallery spaces. Together, the catalog delivers everything – the present, the past (in its entirety, for complete reference), the scholarly analysis, and the supporting detail – in a succinctly effective package.

Part of the reason this approach is so efficient is that Probst’s full body of work is neatly tied together by a common conceptual through line; even when she is exploring wholly different subject matter genres, from street photography and fashion to nudes, still lifes, and portraiture (among others), she is still essentially probing the same set of photographic questions that systematically unpack how we see.

For going on three decades now, Probst has been arranging complicated multi-camera setups (some using as many as a dozen radio-controlled cameras) that simultaneously document a given moment from a variety of perspectives. Her works smartly undermine the idea that there is any one privileged point of view in a given situation or reality, and that a single photograph of that moment offers us a “truth” we can rely on; instead, she shows us multiple often disorientingly fractured variants of the same precise instant, offering a richer and more complicated sense of space, place, arrangement, and even potential narrative. Suddenly where we stand, in which direction we look, our distance from the subject, what details catch our attention – they all matter and all come together to craft a larger sense of a single individual moment or scene.

In Probst’s works from the past five years, she’s liberally jumped from subject to subject. In her urban setups, she’s stretched to expand her sense of distance, simultaneously capturing single figures from down the block, across a crosswalk or intersection, and looking down from nearby rooftops. The eerily empty streets of New York during the pandemic in 2020 give some of these lone figures even more space, allowing them to stand in the middle of streets that would normally be choked with traffic, looking down long avenues that trail off into the quiet; her images made in Chelsea and Soho feel particularly resonant, with boarded up shops and closed gallery spaces flanking the solitary stances. A year later when the crowds began to return, Probst experimented with longer exposures, which turned intermittently passing pedestrians into ghostly sweeps of blurred color. And most recently, she’s gone to further spatial extremes, mixing cropped closeups with bird’s eye vertical views taken from longer distances, her models isolated on far off rooftops, surrounded by the complexity of the built environment nearby.

Much of the rest of Probst’s recent work refuses to settle in one spot, restlessly experimenting and rethinking various genres and situations. A couple of works feel deliberately cinematic, mixing black-and-white and color, with stylish figures captured near grassy knolls, corn fields, tunnels, and parked cars, as though left there in the midst of a French New Wave narrative from the 1960s. Her interior still lifes edge further toward the slightly perplexing or surreal, anchored by an orange plastic bag caught on the leg of a table, a hand reaching for what looks like a cherry soda, some feet placed within blocky geometries like a giant walking through the city, and a woman holding a fish near some floating bubbles. A small selection of nudes pulls in even closer, fragmenting tangled bodies into overlapped layers of elbows, knees, and torsos that edge toward sculptural abstraction, with the seeing eye of at least one camera often present. Perhaps the most striking of the new works is one Probst staged in the Kunstmuzeum Luzern, where a woman in red seems to stand precipitously on the rooftop of a building while simultaneously looking up at a crashing wave, the effect cleverly achieved using imagery on the floors and walls, tucked away in otherwise white cube gallery spaces.

When we flip through to the catalogue raisonné section of the photobook, Probst’s analytical range becomes even more visible, the power of the singular idea of photographic simultaneity splintered out into nearly 200 examples. When just two images are used, the setups seem to encourage back-and-forth oscillation between competing perspectives; when the number of cameras increases, it’s almost like we can piece together a three dimensional view from the available visual snippets, but it’s never easy – the relationships between the individual pictures tell only part of the story, seemingly leaving areas of deliberate mystery and confusion.

These fractures are perhaps, in the end, Probst’s real subject – she’s revealing to us that sight is a process, that we piece together a sense of reality from available parts, and that those angles, gazes, and details come with their own alternate interpretations. Every Probst work is an ingenious puzzle, smartly breaking down the way we see and asking us to question the truths we gather from those impressions. Even without a physical visit to one of the touring museum exhibitions, Barbara Probst: Subjective Evidence still provides a handsome summary of her artistic career to date. It’s as useful a reference tool as we might hope for, while still capturing the elusive magic of being shown a scene from several simultaneous angles and still not quite being able to explain all of its complexities.

Collector’s POV: Barbara Probst is represented by Kuckei + Kuckei in Berlin (here). Her work has very little secondary market history; the few lots that have come up for sale in recent years have ranged in price from roughly $4000 to $23000.

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