Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Element of Surprise

Shocking events happen around us every day. Violence, noise, fighting, confusion. These overwhelming forces are such normal parts of modern life that we can become desensitized to them, hardly even notice their presence.

That’s why it amazes me that we can still be started by something as seemingly benign as a two-dimensional image.

Barbara Probst’s photographs aren’t in-your-face graphic. Rather, by setting two images side-by-side, she requires the viewer to compare and contrast them. It’s the differences and connections we notice that evoke an “aha” experience—that wonderful moment that can’t be achieved simply by seeing something shocking or controversial.

Probst, a New York- and Munich-based photographer, has a new exhibition, Exposures, on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art December 6 through March 8.

In the series, which Probst began in 2000, she groups together photos showing a single action but taken simultaneously from different points of view. She captures her images through a system of radio controls, synchronized cable releases and other photographers at times.

The varying viewpoints illustrate not only the many ways a single moment can be depicted but also how it can be experienced. And noticing that the seemingly dissimilar images are actually of the same event—and one distinct moment in time—is a surprising realization.

In Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m., for example, a color photograph shows a woman striding through a beautiful mountain setting. But the accompanying black-and-white image reveals that the same woman is actually on the roof of a New York skyscraper in front of an alpine backdrop.

Others works don’t startle as much as show how drastically viewpoint informs the feel of a work. Seeing a woman and two girls walk across a street in Exposure #11a: N.Y.C., Duane & Church Streets, 6.10.02, 3:07 p.m. from an aerial view seems more objective than its sister image, a tender close-up of one of the girls grasping her guardian’s hand as they cross the intersection.

And Exposure #40: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:42 p.m. evokes (in me, at least) a sense of nervousness due to Probst’s choices of viewpoints. One image is an upside-down photo of a young woman skipping. The other exposes how close she is to the ledge of a skyscraper. They’re interesting photos on their own. But together, the disorientation of the first image coupled with the new information the second provides makes me think the woman is going to topple over the side of the building.

Other viewers may have different reactions to Probst’s work. But it’s definitely worth checking out the exhibition to see what surprises are in store for you.

EVENT: On Friday, Barbara Probst will discuss the Exposures exhibition and describe her artistic process at 6:30 p.m. at MMoCA. The event is free for MMoCA members and $5 for nonmembers.

Images—Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m.; Exposure #11a: N.Y.C., Duane & Church Streets, 6.10.02, 3:07 p.m.; and Exposure #40: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:42 p.m.—are courtesy of MMoCA.

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