FEATURE ROGER BALLEN
Don’t ever underestimate the animals
Photographer Roger Ballen, whose new book Boarding House shifts his camera-mounted, high-intensity flash photography into new areas, talks to Darius Himes about influence, introspection and how colour pictures give you a wrong impression about reality
DH: Roger, does Boarding House (2009) pick up from where Shadow Chamber (2006) left off? D0 you see this as a companion volume or a natural outgrowth of the Shadow Chamber work?
RB: Well, I think that if you’re an attuned person and artist, you’re writing your own diary all the time. Your work is growing as you grow. The images in Boarding House, in many ways, are much more complex visions of reality than the images in Shadow Chamber, and likewise, Shadow Chamber was a more complex vision of reality than Outland (2001), my first book with Phaidon. I think it’s important that in Boarding House, in some way at least. I’ve come into my own style The response to Outland was, “Oh, these pictures are a bit like Diane Arbus or Weegee.” In Shadow Chamber, there were two distinct periods, which I probably mentioned to you a few years ago when we spoke about that book. There’s the first period, from 2001 and 2002, which was a natural outgrowth of Outland. There were still people in the photographs and there was still an element of staging to the photographs. Then in 2003, the portraits started to fade away and the work became more like still lives.
DH: You’ve developed a very unique style and approach to your work In speaking about the trajectory of the work from Outland to Shadow Chamber and now to Boarding House, where do you see some of your breakthrough stylistic changes occurring?
RB: The most important stylistic change was adding the drawings and sculptural pieces during the period at the beginning of Shadow Chamber. Those sculptural pieces and drawings, I think, add a very particular and peculiar level of meaning and complexity to the work. It is a style and vision that is purely my own and I truly think it’s quite separate from anything in photography at this point in time. I feel very pleased with that. It’s taken me many, many years to get to the point where I really feel that this is a parallel road to something going on in my own mind which has no relationship to any prior photographs I’ve seen or anything that I’ve encountered in the contemporary world of photography In a sense, there is no influence on me. The influence of other artists is way behind me. I’m looking Into my own psyche and delivering that in a very formalistic and clear way I don’t see any point in being introspective and not being able to express it. That’s what lies at the heart of these photographs.
DH: That makes sense to me I was talking with Kathy Ryan (picture editor of the New York Times Magazine) last year when she included your work in the New York Photo Festival. She commented that you’re a one-man school of photography In many ways, I agree one is hard-pressed to find somebody doing what you’re doing, which is such a fascinating combination of photography, drawing and sculpture. You seem extremely concerned with mark-making. Not only the marks in front of you on the walls and windows and doors of the photographs, but the photographs themselves have a mark-making quality The camera-mounted, high-intensity flash flattens everything in front of the camera – hands and feet, kittens and birds, branches, Wire, mattresses and scribbles on the wall – to a highly potent and outlined gesture. There’s an obvious playfulness you have with your subjects, with the people you’re photographing I like that back-and-forth quality There seems to be an element of collaboration going on.
RB: I agree There is a small measure of collaboration with the people But don’t ever underestimate the animals. They are an Important thing to decipher They play a large role in my photography and even I am not quite sure what they represent. The metaphor or symbolism of an animal is quite different than a human being If you take any of the animals, the domestic animals that are with us on this planet. each one has endless mythology and metaphor wrapped up with it. This mythology and metaphor is particular to different cultures. In the western world we see a cat one way, and the Chinese see it another. So, these animals are very crucial to trying to decipher some of the meaning in these works. There are probably more animals than there are humans in my photographs.
DH: Are you mining the unconscious and creating your own mythology in these photographs? It definitely doesn’t feel like you’re working with any particular cultural mythology.
RB: There’s definitely no particular cultural mythology I’m working with. The pictures are of a psychological culture, a Jungian culture, if you will. It emanates from my own psyche. It is difficult trying to define my work because I feel like I’m trying to define myself Perhaps a poetic way of putting it is that I’m trying to define and place where one’s dreams are coming from. And that is necessarily a “deep” place.
DH: I like that
RB: It’s a hard place to get to, honestly It has taken me many years to get to that place and to define it visually.
DH: I agree. It seems like it is a shifting place, an impenetrable place
RB: It’s a black hole!
DH: Your presentation in New York at the New York Photo Festival has stuck with me this last year You described a scenario of discovering a warehouse-like building in a run-down section of Johannesburg The upstairs of this building was constructed in such a way that there was a long hallway with various room, or “chambers,” off it As you described this ‘place’; you seemed to take on a persona that not only reminded me, on some level, of the subjects you have photographed, but who seemed to be purposefully leading us, the audience, into a receptive state so that we could understand these photographs in a very different way That is very different than many other artists or other photographers that I’ve seen talk about their work And there was definitely an element where it felt like this was a conscious ‘persona” you’ve developed as a way of drawing us into the work Is that fair to say?
RB: Yeah, I think so. My photographs are ultimately about my own imagination in some way I think it’s important for people to use their imaginations to understand these photographs. So, rather than trying to technically talk about them, I wanted to give the audience an aesthetic sensibility of the place, of the magic of the particular place And also to try to convey the atmosphere around the pictures, or the sparks that the pictures are sending off as you view them.
DH: That’s exactly how it felt one of the photographs I’ve been looking at is toppled It has a strong drawing element. Both the presentation in New York and the new work reminds me of your comment earlier about the ‘Jungian culture” that operates Within your work. Jung talks at length about the need for adults to engage in ‘play” In your photographs, there is a playfulness, but it is not childish. It is deeper and darker than any child could go. You’re allowing the imagination to play in an unguarded way, yet the structure of the images is so refined. It’s a nice balance between structure and total freedom
RB: Yes. I feel like I’ve got to provide the road for you, as the Viewer, to travel. That’s why I don’t like most photography I see, because it’s compositionally chaotic. My job is to get you on the right road, I want to put you in that particular place, the one I was in when I was photographing And if I put you in that particular place, it’s going to change you in some way I want to immerse you in that photograph I’m not going to let you sort of sit outside the photograph and figure out what it’s about I’m going to put it right in your stomach for you That’s my goal in what I do.
DH: That makes sense
RB: All my work over the last 10-15 years has black humour to it It’s funny, but it’s not funny It has a paradoxical quality There is an element of tragedy and disturbance mixed in with the comedy. There are a lot of opposites in the work. For example, the places that I’ve been photographing in, from a content point of view, are extremely chaotic but as you mentioned, the photographs are extremely well-managed and well-composed This creates a tension that I like.
DH: There’s also a certain stability that comes about through the square format. You provide a very stable place for all of the chaos’
RB: You know, nothing is a more stable form than a square or cube. You’re right.
DH: Tell me about the American “Colour Field” painters of the 1960s and 70s that you have mentioned as inspirations, such as Newman and Rothko and Stella.
RB: In the field paintings – and its true of most paintings – everything is ultimately equal, it’s all in focus, Growing up when I did, and seeing this work, it became a really important point for me, That was a really important thing for me, that when you look at a field painting, everything in some ways appears I’m not a historian, but that’s how their work impacted my thinking In 1973, when I began the travels that took me on a five-year trip from Cairo to Cape Town to Istanbul to New Guinea, I had a wide-angle lens that I used I would focus on the ground In front of me and let people come. In and out of the View, but always making sure that whatever passed in front was always in focus, That was the field in front of me, so to speak. It was also my field of consciousness in a way, This field of consciousness became a primary concern for me in my photography’
DH: When I think about that and compare it to the work you’re making now, the strongest element that leaps out is the enormous amount of detail that is present. The flash gives it a hyper-reality and there’s an element where everything from the highlight to the shadow to the detail on the sticks, and blankets and the mattress and the wall, all of the detail and every element of the photograph – the entire field – has importance and a rightful, conscious place in the photograph’
RB:You’re absolutely, 100% right when you say that One of the most Important problems I have with a great deal of photography is focus, The centre may be in focus, but people just let the rest of the photograph go to hell. There’s no organic unity. Ultimately, my model is nature, Everything in nature has a reason for being there. It’s all organic. There’s nothing in nature that is without reason or purpose, that doesn’t integrate with everything else. I can’t tell you how dismayed and disenchanted I am, at times, by what I see in the photographic business. So many people don’t have the most basic understanding of composition, for example. It’s just beyond belief. Actually let’s use an analogy. If you were to go to a doctor with a problem and the doctor says, ‘I think you have a stomach problem, but I don’t really know where the stomach is, because I never took an anatomy course,’ you would think, ‘What kind of doctor is this?’ How can someone be a visual artist if he doesn’t understand the basic premise of composition? I’ve always believed that a photograph should reproduce as much as possible exactly what the eye sees, which keeps everything in focus.
DH: Back to this specific body of work in the photographs in Boarding House, are you still in the same physical locales, with some of the same people? Or are you in new locations?
RB: Boarding House is mostly from another location, another place entirely. This new place inspired me and partly led me to create these images. I guess I was ready to be led there.
DH: The most common question you’re asked, I’m sure, is which parts of the photograph were you and which parts were the contribution of the people you’re photographing. For instance, did you make those drawings and sculptures or did they?
RB: The only way I can answer is to say that it’s an interactive process. Any other photographer could spend the next 1000 years, and is still not going to make the images I create. You know, there are 1000s and 1000s of little pieces that come together in anyone photograph.
DH: The infinite number of choices that lead up to a moment, in other words.
RB: Yes. With paintings, there are 1000s and 1000s of little brushstrokes. 1000s and 1000s of these little subconscious decisions. Yes, no, stand here, breathe that way, hold the camera that way, use the light this way, move this way, that way, put that in, take that out. use this, don’t use that. It’s difficult to delineate my particular way of making photographs and the particular type of interaction with my subjects and with the animals and the locations.
DH: It’s the infinite regress of cause and effect.
RB: That’s right. You may be looking at one thing and be reminded of something you saw 40 years ago And then that inspiration triggers something else which creates another reaction. The tension between all of these objects and decisions can create an integrated whole. As an artist you’re striving to create an integrated whole, you’re trying to create life. That’s a good way of putting it. A good work of art has life in it. It goes from being inorganic to organic. It takes upon itself an essence. It ultimately out lives you as a human being.
DH: And tell me about your relationship to black and white. Have you ever done some of this work in colour?
RB: I can’t separate this work from black and white because I don’t think in colour. I’m 58 years old, and I’ve been doing black and white since I was five years old I don’t really like colour. I like colour paintings, but colour pictures lead you wrongly, they give you a wrong impression about reality. Most people think of photographs as duplicating reality. I subconsciously think that it’s duplicating reality For 99% of the world, the camera is a factual instrument to duplicate reality, or objectify reality in some way, which is completely wrong! Of course, a painter doesn’t get asked the same questions that a photographer does. The issue is that a colour photograph leads you to believe that whatever you’re seeing is the real colour, when in reality it’s photographic colour. In very few cases, artists can manipulate colour to create meaning the way a painter does. There is a cognitive dissonance where the mind sees this colour and it believes that it represents the way the mind saw colour in the original experience. With painting there is cognitive dissonance all the time. What worries me about colour is that there is something artificial about It. but it won’t admit to Its artificiality.
DH: Exactly. It’s harder to suspend the disbelief that this is not reality, that this is not the way the world is, that this is a photographic colour. ..
RB: I think black and white is much more refined. It is more elementary In some ways and more complicated In others. You can’t get away with all sorts of things in black and white that you can get away with in colour.
DH: Let me ask you about how you approach the book making process? Let’s go back to 2004, when Shadow Chamber is now off at the printer and launch events are happening between then and now, what is the process for you? Do you simply continue to make work and as images arise in that process, you pull aside certain ones and make a stack of prints?
RB: I generally work from a theme. For instance, I now have two themes I’m working on. I even have the titles in my mind. I go along trying to define these themes. The theme takes 4 or 5 years to define visually, and hopefully, as time goes on, the vision becomes more complex and there is more profundity to it. It’s totally a creative and formative process. There are no parameters to the process, but in some metaphoric way it has to relate to the theme I’m working on. I guess it’s really about my imagination. For instance, I built and created a place called the Shadow Chamber and now I’ve created and built a place called the Boarding House.
DH: Do you edit down from a large group of images, or are you slowly building up till you reach that tipping point where it feels complete?
RB: It’s like a mother with a baby. You know subconsciously when that baby needs to come out. With the Boarding House series I started with 200 pictures, and I could have easily had 120 pictures in this book. But the publisher wanted fewer, so there’s that element of working within the parameters of the publishing process.
DH: Is there any sub-theme or tangential body of work that you would love to see published at some point?
RB: There are all sorts of sub-themes. Just concentrating on the animals is a whole, rich area to explore. Ultimately, good artwork is multiple layered If this is good art work, then there have to be multiple themes. It has to keep changing. It’s quite important to me that you can’t get to the core of this work. When I say you, I mean I can’t either. The most important work to me is the work that I don’t know what to say about it. If it’s a challenge to me then I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing That’s why I continue to take pictures.
“I think black and white is much more refined. It is more elementary in some ways and more complicated in others”
Darius Himes is a founding member of Radius Books, a Santa Fe–based company that publishes books on the visual arts