Language of the visual (Graham Wood)

Posted on July 25, 2009



Culmination; Wall above bed, Dortrecht

UNDER THE SURFACE: right, Culmination, 2007 from Boarding House, published in 2009; left, Wall above bed, Dordrecht, 1984, from Roger Ballens book Dorps, Small Towns of South Africa, published in 1986


The language of the visual

Photographing our internal isolation


Through his photography, Roger Ballen confronts us with the disturbing prospect of our isolation, writes GRAHAM WOOD 

Your starting point, even before meeting Ballen, is deep inside the artist’s psyche. His dark, surreal photos force an uncomfortable intimacy on the viewer without betraying much about their source. At nearly 60, Ballen remains one of the few South African artists to have stirred up genuine controversy, not just the petty, attention-seeking provocation of the publicity stunt.He outraged critics and earned notoriety in the 1980s and early 1990s with his images of rural South Africans in the books Dorps, Small Towns of South Africa; and Platteland, Images of a Rural South Africa.

There were complaints he had exploited his marginalised subjects and turnedt hem into a freak show. Ballen makes it clear, without distancing himself from that phase of his career, he is working on different material now. “Two of the greatest misconceptions about me are, firstly, that I don’t live here – I have lived in SA for almost 30 years; and, secondly, that my subject is the South African countryside and its inhabitants. “The last time I released a book or exhibition on those was in 1994.”

Ballen exhibits around the world and has become something of an institution, even setting up his own foundation. He has gradually shifted away from documentary photography and portraits, but his images remain as unsettling as ever, and he is still dedicated to “the psychological challenge of not reinforcing our sense of beauty”.Every five years or so, he releases a book the size of a: coffee-table book filled with square, black and white images: a bright flash reveals a starkly illuminated language of surfaces, wires on walls and weird interiors filled with haunting, sometimes uncanny, sometimes blackly funny scenes of people, props, animals and drawings.

They offer a private vision, a surrealist set of tableaux, mixed with elements of art brut or outsider art – images plucked from a world outside social consensus. Ballen’s photography took root in a world inhabited by the 20th-century photographic elite. He was raised in New York during the 1950s and 1960s. His mother worked for the Magnum photographic agency and opened her own art gallery in the early 1970s, one of the first in the US to specialise in photography. He got his first camera in his early teens and grew up surrounded by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertesz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Diane Arbus, but never studied photography formally, nor aimed to practise it commercially. Instead, he studied psychology at Berkeley, California; at the heart of the counterculture revolution in the late 1960s. He dabbled in film and was influenced by playwright Samuel Beckett with his sparse sets, absurdism, dark humour and existential bleakness.

Later, Ballen travelled through Africa and Asia, from Cairo to Cape Town, and a few years later, from Istanbul to New Guinea. “The early 1970s was a peculiar period in history. Everyone was looking for some sort of salvation in the third world,” he notes wryly. Those travels produced his first book, Boyhood, in which he sought to capture not only a picture of boyhood life, but something of his own childhood. “My work at the time was the product of that young man in his 20s in search of adventure. Although, even then it had a psychological dimension …. Even then there was something inward-looking.

Ballen settled in Joburg in 1982. By then he had earned a PhD in mineral economics and exploration and was working as a geologist, consulting to mining companies and evaluating mineral deposits. His “travelling from place to place” and seeing small towns led to Dorps and Platteland. “My work at the time was the product of that young man in his 20s in search of adventure. Although, even then it had a psychological dimension …. Even then there was something inward-looking” In the furore that followed the publication of these books, he began exploring the potential of photography to have a “universal resonance” and a “meaning beyond the circumstances” it depicted. His subjects represented to him “aspects of fear, marginalisation, breakdown, chaos and being alone in the world”.

Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen


He sought to go beyond documentary and “aesthetically represent something of the human condition”. Further, he came to believe the images he was taking at the time were not only about social and cultural facts, but also about what was going on in his own mind. He calls his conception of photography a “dual turning, simultaneously a journey into the interior and exterior. My state of mind and that place transformed.”

“Photography itself,” he explains, “is another language – a photographic, visual language that I combine or mix with the language of my imagination.”

The next phase of his career was dedicated to exploiting the rich creative possibilities and unsettling ambiguities of this domain. Ballen is concerned that our increased familiarity with photographic images-has stunted our relationship with them, and that too much modern photography has become superficial. “It doesn’t seem to be getting to the core issues. It reflects a limited experience.” The words “essence” and “core” come up often. “Like all works of art, if someone feels they have interacted with art and there is an essence there, then it is successful.”

In a sharp reversal, he has grown outspoken about what he thinks is wrong with contemporary photography. “It’s a scary, sick situation out there,” Ballen says, referring to “the subtle, powerful, media-defined environment we live in. It defines individuality for us, and we act out its definitions.”

Partly in response to this trend, he launched the Roger Ballen Foundation last year to “promote the education and appreciation of photography in SA, and to improve the understanding of photography among a new generation of photographers, artists, curators, collectors and enthusiasts”.  The foundation brings internationally renowned contemporary photographers to SA and exhibits their work, and they participate in a lecture series and run master classes in connection with the Wits and UCT Art Schools.

The depth of his objections becomes clearer when he raises the topic of the stifling political correctness of our times, which overplays external and environmental influences at the expense of the ideas of nature – or an unpredictable, unknowable interior world. “Take the example of two dogs,” he says. “They could be from the same litter, raised in the same circumstances, and one might turn out vicious and the other good-tempered.”

The animals in Ballen’s photos serve a particular function. “It is fundamental to human life that we interact with animals.” To a degree, the animals in his work represent our alienation from the natural world in an existential sense. “You’ll never understand the animal, and it will never understand you. In fact, understanding is the wrong concept – our consciousnesses are so vastly different.  And yet we have an implicit awareness of each other.”

There is something in the remoteness, the unfathomable interior of these creatures that chimes with Ballen’s artistic project, because they have it in common with photography itself. Ballen’s work does not engender the feelings of connectedness or wholeness that seem at the centre of much of the photographic enterprise. He might horrify us with the humanity we see, and confront us with the disturbing prospect of our isolation and alienation from each other. He might evoke the dark and disquieting side of fantasy, but he leaves us with the unmistakable sense that there is a self, not quite knowable, but accountable all the same.

The surprise that greets you at the end of a Ballen book or exhibition is that you haven’t been inside his head so much as your own all along.

• Boarding House runs at the UJ Art Gallery, cnr University and Kingsway roads, Auckland Park, Joburg, (011) 559-2099, from July 29 to August 22. It will be in Cape Town early next year. Boarding House (Phaidon) is available at most bookstores.

• The Roger Ballen Foundation will be presenting Vik Muniz and Stephen Shore’s work from July 26 until November 1 at Johannesburg Art Gallery, cnr Klein and King George streets, Joubert Park, (011) 725-3130,