In and Out of the Abyss
BY MARY ANN LYNCH
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © ROGER BALLEN, COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GAGOSIAN GAlLERY, NEW YORK
It’s November 2010 and I’ve reached Roger Ballen at home in Johannesburg, South Africa at the end of his working day. His daily routine starts at 7:00 a m with administrative work; he photographs in the afternoon. Born in New York City in 1950, Ballen has lived in Johannesburg since 1982 and has done all his photography there since 1994. For nearly a decade now, his schedule has been filled with gallery and museum shows worldwide, drawing from the entire Ballen canon. In 2010, Ballen left in his wake an
international trail of exhibitions and appearances, from Australia, Russia and throughout Europe to a major retrospective at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. His work includes six key books Boyhood (1979), Dorps (1986), Platteland (1994), Outland (2001), Shadow Chamber (2005), and Boarding House (2009, the last three published by Phaidon Press.
Roger Ballen is a rarity among photographers, showing an ongoing development of many of the same formal elements and the visual language he discovered working on his second book. He has slowly evolved from documentary work to psychologically based images of greater and greater complexity. In a dark, semi-fictive interplay of forms and tonalities, he has forged a multidimensional style all his own. Ballen will talk about his evolution as an artist, about “the crisscrossing invisible lines” that unify an unexpected mix of objects, people, animals, and so much more, and tell stories behind the images but don’t ask him to explain his photographs. He will turn that back to you: “The only thing that matters is the picture and how it affects you.”
Ballen’s voice is steady, intense and reflective, all in one. No fatigue, he is a relentless worker. “I’m sitting on the bottom of Africa here, and when I travel, I’m always amazed at how many people know my work. One of the reasons I’ve developed like this is that it’s been very isolating here from an artist’s point of view.
I’ve thought about photography every day. It’s been through self-criticism and self-involvement that I got to where I did. Here there are not that many people interested, not much of a market. Sometimes you’re better working in that environment – you’re not distracted. I think that played a big role in my photography. The footprints I follow are my own photographs.”Following those footprints backward lands us in New York City in 1955, and young Roger has taken his first photograph, of his sister, with the family Brownie camera. “You can never discount genetics,” says Ballen, as we review his unusual background in photography. It’s likely that Ballen inherited the artistic gene from his mother, Adrienne Ballen, a picture editor at Magnum. Or perhaps he just absorbed the artistic essence at home: the stacks of pictures and photography books, the talk of art, literature and photography, and the familial dropping by of his mother’s colleagues and friends, from Andre Kertesz, Alfred Steichen, and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson and Elliott Erwitt – Ballen taking it all in, even subconsciously, through his pores and his psyche. He had no formal instruction in photography.For higher education, Ballen went west. At the University of California at Berkeley, his choice of psychology as a major fit the tenor of the times. He photographed civil rights activism and anti-war protests with his 35mm Nikon. By 1972 he had his bachelor’s degree. When his mother became terminally ill with cancer in 1973, he was devastated and returned to New York City to be with her. She had been, and would remain, a compelling influence upon his life.After her death in 1973, disillusioned and heavy-hearted, he left to travel the world. “I did travel photography during that period, street-style work. From the time I was a young man, I knew that I would keep photography as part of my life, as a hobby and art. I had no interest in commercial work. I’m still really photographing to find out more about myself. The feeling of being on that path … it’s like that famous Nietzsche quote, ‘When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”He immersed himself in non-Western cultures, traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town and Istanbul to New Guinea In Johannesburg he met an artist, whom he would marry. Returning to the United States in 1977, he threw himself into work, in 1979 publishing Boyhood, a book of photographs from his travels “that was really all about me,” and by 1981 completing a Ph.D at the Colorado School of Mines. The next year he and his wife settled in Johannesburg. Ballen was eager to get his business as a mining entrepreneur going. He was into Chapter Two.Flashing forward to 1999, near the turn of the century, Roger Ballen had been photographing more than thirty years and never sold a print. He didn’t mind photography was not his job, but his personal passion, and he had published: Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986) and Platteland, Images of Rural South Africa (1994) Working on them between 1982 and 1994 he had logged “two hundred thousand miles going back and forth to the countryside.” During that time, his family had grown to include twins, a girl and.o boy, yet even with increased family responsibilities, he kept up his dual existence, equally passionate about each identity.In many ways they mirrored one another. There was Ballen the scientist, a trained geologist and mining entrepreneur, who made his living prospecting, exploring the earth’s interior, layer by layer, in search of ore – and then back again with the treasure. And there was Ballen the artist, going within his psyche, with camera, black-and-white film, and flash as his accomplices. “I am looking for the source of dreams,” he explains. “What you’re seeing in my photography” he adds, “is a way of seeing: the Roger Ballen way of seeing.”Between his two pursuits, geology and his art, Ballen had achieved equilibrium. Being his own boss, he could also make time for his photography. It was while prospecting in the countryside that he had discovered the dorps, or small villages, vestiges of a better past. Photographing the rural marginalized areas and people of the South African countrywide would occupy Ballen over the next twelve years.
Speaking about that time, Ballen notes, “Dorps is my most important book. I used the square format for the first time, went inside for the first time-inside physically and psychologically – used flash for the first time, I found textures on the wall for the first time. During the period I was engaged in photographing the
dorps, I found the approach and visual vocabulary I would keep expanding for the next thirty years. I always say that creating that body of work, I crossed the river, where the picture becomes artwork, enigmatic. The river pushed me back occasionally, but once I had seen the other side I knew I could get back there again.”
Always pressing his creativity and at times his safety zone, Ballen does not readily move from his course; during the years of Apartheid, he was frequently arrested for photographing in public, but never charged. “It came with living in a war zone,” he states matter-of-factly. But when Platteland was published in 1994, the same year Apartheid ended, he became a target of hatred. The urban white population recoiled at photographs like “Man Shaving on Verandah, 1986” and “Man and Maid, 1991” that so shockingly undercut the colonialist image of whites during Apartheid. Images of rural white Afrikaners living “in a climate of fear, alienation, and isolation” were not what they wanted shown to the world.
“The arts community turned its back on me; even my friends turned on me. Worst of all were the death threats. The pictures opened a wound in the country. When it exploded like a bombshell, it turned me from a hobbyist into a serious artist.” And the images would be long-lived, with “Dresie and Casie, Twins,
1993” and “Sergeant F. de Bruin, 1992,”probably always on exhibit somewhere.
Outland, his next book, marked Ballen’s transition away from the documentary style. He was also working close to home. “That was the first time I was able to photograph in a disciplined, organized way. I started out working three afternoons a week. I found different places and I went in – whether they were houses, missions, Salvation Army-type of places, or boarding houses – I just tried to find people and places that somehow or other fitted my aesthetic.
The images in Outland reveal Ballen in full directorial mode, interacting with his subjects to create staged tableaux evocative of playwright Samuel Becket: “Sometimes I’m directing the actors; sometimes they’re directing me.” Man and animals, a complex, uneasy relationship: what it all means, Ballen leaves for us to
consider “The picture is open to interpretation and I think good art is open to interpretation. The best pictures are the ones that I don’t understand so first of all I don’t claim to have all the answers to the
pictures but that’s why I say I’m creating a life and every one of them has its own individuality, its own life.”
Remember 1999, the turn of the Millennium, when Ballen had never sold a print? The 2001 publication of Outland, the culmination of twenty years’ work, garnered worldwide critical acclaim. The images, unlike any ever seen before, struck like a rogue lightning bolt on a summer’s day, illuminating the Ballen aesthetic and genius. PhotoEspana 2001 in Madrid awarded Outland “Best Photographic Book of the Year.” The inaugural Les Rencontres de la Photographie Festival in Aries in 2002 named Ballen “Photographer of the Year.” Venues throughout the world clamored to show Ballen’s photography, from Gagosian Gallery in New York City to the Victorian & Albert Museum in London. And after a thirty-year abstinence, buyers dug into their pockets to purchase his exquisite silver prints, whose formalistic beauty sang or grated in
counterpoint to the sometimes-devilish content.
Ballen’s next two books, Shadow Chamber (2005) and Boarding House (2009), were photographed around Johannesburg, in buildings from the turn-of-the century mining business. Now they’re makeshift places for people to stay, mainly men, with little means and fewer needs. Not rooms, just areas separated off with curtains, tin, stacks of whatever.
In “Twirling Wires, 2001” from Shadow Chamber, a gigantic spherical mass on the wall hovers above the man below, partly obscured by a blanket. Wires, drawings, assorted animals and people in extraordinary configurations populate spaces that seem uninhabitable, in still life tableaux, Kafkaesque scenes. The irony
of Ballen’s titles is nowhere more apparent than in “Lunchtime, 2001 “: more famine than food. And there are always containers.
In “Appearances, 2003” a white rabbit trapped within antlers rests atop a wooden crate with a crouching boy inside, while a dog stands up impossibly straight, like a circus animal. All are in complexity light years from the early documentary work and yet formal elements hold the lineage.
By Boarding House, humans have been pushed to the side, and wall paintings – some by Ballen – have begun to move in, yet his focus continues to be the universal human condition. He’s drawn to its perimeters, realms where others dare not tread. Once there, he finds balance and order visually, even in a melange of disparate elements and unfathomable scenarios. Unlocking the visual keys, clues and correspondences, inner dialogues and patter back and forth among drawings, toys and shapes in “Boarding House, 2008,” the cover image of that book, is not possible. Every nuance, detail, and shadow
quietly conspires. Look long enough and things start to move.
In “Eulogy, 2004” a man with an accordion plays, or pretends to play, for a dead chicken. And In “Zebra Room, 2007,” a mounted fox sits beneath a tanned animal hide, a small kitten peering out in between. But in “Fate, 2008,” face drawings cover a wall where isolated fragments poke through: a bird’s head in a hand, a stuffed animal-unified formally by lines and shapes. The “creative coherence” – Ballen used that term in our conversation – of dissonant elements throughout Boarding House is remarkable.
His other in-progress work focuses on two-dimensional figures captured on glass. I asked Ballen once again to speak to his evolution of his way of seeing: “I don’t take pictures just due to their novelty; it’s just the way the picture comes out. It develops that way because I’ve been at this forty or fifty years and I’ve developed a way of seeing and a style. I draw a lot of analogies between what I do and what painters do, perhaps more than photographers. It’s a long development of a style. I have always commented that a lot
of little steps make a big step.”
Finally, crucial to Ballen’s work is the medium of black and white. “I’m from the last generation to be committed to black and white. I don’t want to go near color, I don’t like color, I’m sticking with black and white to the last day, that’s it, period. That’s my alter ego. That’s my medium. It’s a very complex medium. It takes … not years … it takes decades to get your finger around it in some way. The printing’s another thing, it takes decades to get that right too.” Ballen sells only his silver prints, though he’s glad for digital prints because “it would be impossible to supply the exhibition needs with silver ones.”
I asked Ballen what he might attribute his relatively recent success and print sales to, and he replied: “I’m creating photographs that stick in people’s brains, that’s what art should be doing. Art should be like a virus, the first thing it has to do is get into your stomach somehow and just stick in there. A lot of photography we see doesn’t stick anywhere, it just goes through your head or through the air, and it goes into vacuous space. This virus, it’s in you before you can open your mouth, it just gets inside, it transforms your mind, your emotions, your identity, and your consciousness. That’s what art should be doing – that’s not what people want to have happen because that scares them.”
It is my opinion,” Ballen says when we last speak, “that the most important political transformations are psychological, and that if my photographs transform the minds of the people who view them, then I have altered their political consciousness.”
The Dark Continent, as Africa is often called, has been the ideal cauldron for Ballen’s relentless spiritual journey, into the baffling entanglement of the human experience: “I can no longer really tell the difference between light and dark. They’re joined. Everyone has got to find the right balance for themselves; most people, as artists, can’t find the balance. I was lucky enough to. That’s what life’s about.”
• CONTACT INFORMATION
- Roger Ballen: www.rogerballen.com
- Gagosian Gallery, New York (Los Angeles, London, Paris,
- George Eastman House International Museum of Photography
and Film [to schedule the traveling exhibition Roger Ballen,
Photographs, available January 2011-2015]: