Thursday, March 31, 2011
I felt privileged when Roger Ballen responded to my request to interview him. An American friend first showed me his work. I was instantly awe-struck. Truly unique, Roger Ballen’s work is hypnotic, weird, fantastical and, ultimately, beautiful. Like a brilliantly imaginative nightmare. His answers came in a timely manner, in the week that the Richard Prince/Gagosian controversy has exploded in the media. I don’t like Prince, and I don’t agree with profiteering with brazen disregard and disrespect for the work and livelihood of others. Inadvertently though, it would appear I’m showing that the Gagosian does have some truly valuable, original artists on their roster, like Ballen.
A lot has been said about the ‘horror vacui’ – the way you use negative space in your images. What I enjoy about your work, and I am sure a lot of people are struck by, is the flagrant presence of constructed reality, where a lot of photographers instead attempt to tell a ‘truth’. How do you feel about the role of photography now?
Every time one takes a photograph one is documenting something. The fundamental issue ultimately for me is the depth of meaning that an image expresses and whether the photograph becomes lodged in my mind. I am not very concerned about whether the image is truthful or not, as all photography is ultimately subjective in nature.
Your pictures have been described as ‘painterly’ – on first sight, you think what you’re looking at is a sculpture, or even an illustration. How do you construct your pictures? What materials do you use? How do you come up with these scenarios of objects and people?
I never think about what type of image that I would like to create before I arrive at a location to take a photograph. My photographs over the past ten years have been interactive in nature, developing one step at a time. The scenarios that define “The Roger Ballen Aesthetic” occur through working with the people, animals and the objects of the places that I photograph in. Most importantly photography is about catching instant that cannot be repeated. This moment almost always evolves spontaneously.
My photographs are the result of the way that I conceptualize ‘photographic reality’ and my images consist of thousands of parts that have been transformed through my conscious and subconscious mind.
You come from a family of photographers – how much has this influenced or informed your work?
I bought my first camera when I was thirteen. By that stage, in the early sixties, my mother had been working for Magnum for some years. Through her conversation, and particularly her collecting, I was exposed to work of many photographers – some of them now considered historically important. In this milieu there was a complete belief in the value of photography; and in particular in its ability to capture and convey meaning in a socio-documentary context.
What is the story behind the Platteland twins image?
I was driving around a town in the Western Transvaal in 1993 with my wife and children looking for photographs. Upon turning into a street, I noticed what I believed to be an interesting subject working in the garden. I stopped and asked Dresie if I could photograph him. He walked to the verandah of his where his mother and sister were sitting. I asked them for permission to photograph Dresie. As I lifted my camera to photograph Dresie against the verandah wall, a shadow appeared from behind. As I turned my head Dresie’s twin brother Casie appeared. His shirt was clean, as unlike Dresie, he worked inside the house.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt through your art?
The purpose of my art has always been primarily to learn more about myself. This is a process that continues every day of my life.
Which of your images was the most challenging to execute?
Every photograph that I have taken has been a challenge. As my photographs have become more complex they become increasingly challenging to more execute. It is like a juggler using balancing more balls as he becomes more proficient. “It never gets easier”.
Your work has been well received and exhibited in countries that are culturally very diverse. What do you think it is about your photographs that speaks to so many people in such different places? Was this ever something you set out to do? Or does art always begin as an egocentric pursuit?
I have been passionate about taking photographs for nearly fifty years. Up to fifteen years ago my photographs were primarily taken for myself and I saw it as a hobby rather than profession. I certainly did not see myself as an artist. My photographs are ultimately psychological in nature and can be elucidated through an understanding of Jungian psychology. Many people comment that my images are ‘dark.’ For me the dark side has always been a source of light and energy. I often mention to people that that one cannot find light without knowing the dark.
All images copyright Roger Ballen.
Roger has exhibitions lined up all over. This year, he’ll be exhibiting in Italy, Germany, Russia, Denmark and Holland in Europe. Already pencilled in my imaginary 2k12 diary are shows at Manchester Art Museum (yes, UK!) and Fotografiska in Stockholm, (I can not envisage any exhibition I would want to see more than Roger Ballen at Fotografiska).
I’m off to read Jung.