Even if we accept a photograph as truth - and that's a pretty murky proposition - it's never really the whole truth, just one piece of it. Each of us, and by extension, the camera's lens, sees things from our own viewpoint. Minor shifts in perspective can trigger large shifts in perception.
In a new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, German-born photographer Barbara Probst confronts these issues in ways that are not only visually appealing but also offer, at times, an understated humor.
A 44-year-old artist based in New York and Munich, Probst shoots multiple photos of the same subject simultaneously. She has sometimes accomplished this by giving precise instructions to other photographers stationed in different locations. Typically, though, she takes all the shots herself after rigging her cameras with radio controls or cables.
Probst calls each of her pieces "Exposures" and titles them systematically, noting the precise location, date and time when the pictures were taken. This organizational fetish might strike some as cold or clinical - even stereotypically German. Yet there's a sly wit that seeps into some of the photographic juxtapositions, such as "Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m." In the color photo on the left, a smiling young woman seems to be striding in an Alpine meadow, a quaint chalet and snow-capped peaks in the distance behind her.
Yet, on the right, we're offered an aerial view of this same woman. We see that she's actually on the roof of a tall building in New York, walking in front of a flat backdrop of the Alpine scene held by two assistants. The rural idyll on the left has become mundane, black-and-white reality.
Probst plays with the ways in which different perspectives on the same scene offer up contradictory realities. In two side-by-side portraits of a boy and girl, taken from slightly different angles, the child who seems to be making eye contact with us changes from one shot to the next. We're made aware of how a straight-on gaze seems confident and direct, while a sidelong gaze seems pensive or even melancholy. Yet neither of these kids is really choosing to look at us or look away; each is merely looking towards a different camera lens.
Many of Probst's other works entail more than just two paired photos. In a street scene presented here, we're caught up in the activities of several people standing on different corners. We find ourselves in a spatial puzzle as we piece together where the subjects and cameras are in relation to each other.
Probst's work satisfies on both conceptual and purely visual levels. We live in an image-saturated world, yet we've grown increasingly wary - and rightfully so - of the truth of those images. While Probst is not alone in mining this territory, her approach is fresh and engaging.