Monday, August 13, 2007

Four books on Roger Ballen

When I had first seen Roger Ballen’s work in the 2001 Phaidon publication Outland, I found the work to be cruel. His portraits of the poor in rural South Africa did not just describe them impassively but recruited them into playing often disturbing roles within Ballen’s twisted tableaus.

The few “straight” seemingly unconstructed portraits were of the alarmingly odd. They feature people who seem distorted and genetically feeble through years of inbreeding. In one image, it isn’t enough that the twin brothers Dresie and Casie possess wildly protruding ears and tree trunk like necks but Ballen photographs them with gossamer like drool dripping from their thick pouting lips.

Originally born in New York, Ballen moved to South Africa where he has lived for the past 30 years. Employed as a mining consultant, he started photographing South Africa’s “Dorps” or rural villages and quickly moved on to photographing the inhabitants as well. Upon seeing the results, which fall into the realm of documentary traditions, one may begin to think about exploitation. For years I thought these images were a bit mean spirited. I am still torn but perhaps through the process of the participants acting out and claiming their roles, they are empowered by his presence.

As illustrated throughout his book Outland, Ballen creates his sculptural tableaus and photographs them at a moment of heightened strangeness. The often surreal visions are set against the plain industrial walls that serve as a kind of ready made studio seamless.

Outland, published by Phaidon in 2001 was designed by Stuart Smith who I have spoken highly of before in my posts on the John Davies and Tony Ray Jones books published by Chris Boot. Here Smith is most playful with the cover design and use of typography. Minimalist in approach, he leaves the stark white cover almost bare but for the title and author names in extra small type. Just too small to read comfortably it has the same effect of trying to look at something too far away. Outland is far away from both our modern world and our modern society.

The book opens with a section of 16 photos positioned one to a page with large one inch borders all around (the first image is of a door). These are followed by a one page essay by Peter Weiemair called Portraits as Sill Lifes and then the images get pushed up in size to almost filling each page. The beginning section is, considering Ballen, rather straight forward portraits without much perceived direction or construction. After the essay, Ballen holds reality hostage and unleashes his cast of characters to do as they feel. It is within this second section that presents most of what we have come to recognize from Ballen; a mix of disturbed games and surreal juxtapositions. Illustrated with 61 photos the book is well printed and handles Ballen’s often chalky grays well.

The Photo Poche Societe series by Nathan published "Cette Afrique La” in 1997. This title is worth searching out even though these books are really, in my opinion, only good for reference. Even though I like the Photo Poche series in general, I find them too small and sometimes filled with sketchy reproductions. This one happens to be very nicely done with clear and open reproductions.

It reproduces several of Ballen’s known images but also has a variation of images that appeared in Ballen’s earliest books Boyhood, Dorps and Platteland; all of which are well out of print and very costly when found. The early portraits have a kinship to another photographer working in South Africa, David Goldblatt. This also includes many of his architectural photos, most of which concentrate their attention to doors and entranceways of buildings.

Fact or Fiction: Roger Ballen is a decent sized hardcover catalog from Edition Kamel Mennour and contains 38 images. The show was in March 2003 at the Gallerie Mennour in Paris and exhibited a range of work dating from 1983 through 2002. Although this is a nice, well printed book, all of the images appear in Shadow Chamber and Outland.

Shadow Chamber is the latest book, just released in softcover by Phaidon. Shadow Chamber is the wildest of his books as it includes most of his recent work that is descending deeper into surreal territory. Instead of the surroundings being identifiable rooms, he seems to be constructing his visions in a cement box.

As Robert Sobieszek writes in his introduction, “The world has been reduced to a closed series of hermetic cells in some global psychiatric facility without wardens or caretakers.”

The book is again well designed, this time by Lucy Newall and it keeps to a minimalist feel. The page material has a nice feel as the paper stock isn’t as coated as it was with Outland thus giving it a more matte feel. The reproductions are well done and the trim size of 11x12 inches gives the photos a lot of room to spread out on the page.

I think these are very skillfully made photographs of worlds that I hope to never fall into. These are worlds where sanity is held at bay and complete unpredictability reigns. If these speak to me beyond their artistic forms it is to the fragile hold that I have over my mind. Several of these images seem bent on wrestling that away from me.

I despair in both needing to see, and not wanting to see, what Ballen comes up with next.

Book Available Here (Cette Afrique la)

Book Available Here (Outland)

Book Available Here (Shadow Chamber)


Sufian said...

I've never heard of Roger Ballen, so thanks. Fascinating work, but my first reaction would be disgust, not even sure of what, the 'beautification' (the guy holding the two mouse is particularly striking) of these 'unfortunates'? But that's a knee-jerk reaction, a cliched reaction, probably not even an authentic reaction. I suppose that's the problem with modern art; it's relative, and if we put aside the market dictatorship, how do we judge something? Personal preference?

Something that I've been thinking from the discussion in the previous post; the act of appreciating a journalistic piece aesthetically (beyond its function), would that not confer it the status of art? So isn't a discussion of journalism vs art sort of a futile exercise?

Anonymous said...

Shadow Chamber was first published in hardback in 2005.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Don...just realized I failed to mention that.

Geoff said...

Arbus raised a lot of eyebrows (and had to endure public spit on her gallery pictures) when her work was first made public, yet she has been pretty much mainstreamed into the pantheon of 'masters'. Don't you think Ballen also falls into that established tradition of deep engagement with the dark side of one's subjects, including the self?

There's also quite a bit of black humour in Ballen's photos, like the one of the ninja turtle boy.

What I think is truly remarkable about the latest work is how he has mastered the art of getting under one's skin without being obvious about it, unlike say the gothic horror-porn of Joel Peter-Witkin's work. The impending sense of death and madness is there, but it's not in-your-face. The effect is both incredibly primal yet subtle at the same time.

Geoff said...

I should add that I have nothing against Peter-Witkin's work in terms of its value - it's more of, as Sufian has said above, a matter of personal preference and sensibility.

Glenn Twiggs said...

I can see how looking through this work can be fatiguing. I get a creeping sense of mania from just the few images you've provided. I remember getting a similar feeling from looking at an exhibit of Walker Evans' work from the FSA years. I don't intend to compare the aesthetic or technical qualities of the two photographer's work, but the mood I left the Evans exhibition with was a bit dark. Seeing all those images of migrant workers and rural America changed my mood for the rest of the day. How would a room full of Ballen's images impact?

Anonymous said...

it's strange, Ballen has a whole bunch of mannerisms that ought to disqualify him from being interesting. I looked at Shadow Chamber today, I was in a book shop and it was sitting incongruously between David La Chapelle and Annie Liebowitz and I noticed, not for the first time, that thing he has for people sitting with their chins on the table, and the people in masks, the disembodied limbs, the grimacing kids, quite silly and all of it should add up to something I don't really like - notice how similar that list is to what you were saying about Tierney Gearon?
Yet somehow I find his work totally compelling, like the stuff they call Outsider Art. Which is all wrong as he grew up within the Magnum fold and, one assumes, no longer makes his living from geology. Maybe I'm wrong about the last one though, I'm always astonished by how many apparently successful people are hard up as anything. But I digress. There's a distinct whiff of the insane asylum emanating from his work.
Ballen is also interesting because his work has made such a progression. I don't know how many photographers do this really.

Anonymous said...


I know what you mean...Thanks for the comments.

One thing I cannot deal with in anyone's work is the use of masks. Am I the only one? Ralph Meatyard, Ballen, and anyone else that has their subjects wearing masks automatically annoys me. It seems to venture too much into playacting. Which is an odd notion because all of Ballen is playacting. But wearing masks seems to be trying too hard. I think those great Brassai photos of the dancers wearing masks would be one of the exceptions...but then again, Brassai wasn't going for strangeness with those.

toymaker said...

When masks work: Saul Steinberg/ Inge Morath mask series - Lee Miller's women in fire masks, Helmut Newton's pic of Elsa Peretti as a slightly scary bunny girl- the picture of the first world war spy, Madame Somethingorother, you'll find it in Diana Vreeland's book Allure, I am nowhere near my copy and can't find it on the web to tell you more. Only I know it's by that ol' genius Anonymous - Lartigue and his siblings wearing false noses - Irving Penn's Three Asaro Mud Men - Helen Levitt's kids on the stoop from whence all the others descend - and any number of photos of terrorists, from N. Ireland to Iraq, but I'm thinking mostly of Northern Ireland...

I'm just being contrary though, I agree with you. Oh and Mexican wrestlers of course!

Anonymous said...

oh, and Peter (above) is actually Amy, same as before, I'm just using my father's computer. Your damn blogger software got me.

Anonymous said...


You win...I was mostly meaning the Halloween type mask but then you pulled out those Helen Levitt photos from my memory and a whole trove of others and now I feel kinda stupid.

Still could never get into Meatyard's Lucybell Carter series or ones where the mask is worn to try to invoke weirdness.

And you can also post comments as Peter. Makes it seem like I have more readers. haha

One Way Street said...

A few years ago I heard Roger Ballen speak & I got a sense that "darkness" of his photos seems to be coming more from within him than from without, among his subjects. The theatricality & play-acting also are unnerving as they are resolutely ambiguous. I think a lot of photography is meant to mollify the irrational, to order things, make the world more palatable - even in journalism - it's about being very definite about whatever (even catastrophe). Also in its sociology, photography can also be so middle-class - it's there to be understand & class lines are usually shining forth like shiny facts. The rich are to be held in contempt, the poor are pitied. In Roger Ballen's weird theater the "unfortunates" also look rather threatening, which may be what is intimidating as well as destabilizing. I try to think of this work in contrast to someone like Shelby Lee Adams, who does a somewhat comparable interaction with his subjects - in terms of his equipment, lighting - picture making is performative, involving photographer & subjects, very consciously. But Adams is still "documenting" a rural culture & population. Ballen's work cannot be so neatly summed up. What is he doing? & what does he mean? Maybe we expect images to ultimately be nice about people - & these are potentially sociopathic.

Unknown said...

It's unfortunate there's so much talk of masks. Two things (and I can't say this with certainty) but Roger takes 'props' that are available in situ. He doesn't buy masks at Party Land to create a 'creepy' photo. It's much more genuine than that and focusing on it is a huge detriment to what's going on. Also I think there's only 1 photo in Outland of someone wearing a mask, big deal.

The photo on the cover of Fact or Fiction with the young black boy holding a mask in his hand puts it in a much different context. That photo is very powerful. One could contemplate that photo for quite some time as it conjures up ideas of barriers, identity, preconceptions, bridges, living, dying etc. Did the ytoung boy create that artwork? What was he (or whoever made it) thinking when they did? Not to mention the very emotive portraits of both characters in the photo. It's quite stunning.

The other aspect of his work that you and some criticize, the plight of those he photographs and whether he takes advantage of them. To me that's an easy argument and way too easy way to dismiss what's going on. I see his work as heartfelt not exploitative. He's having fun and probably those people are too as they have their chance to shine on stage in lives that presumably never have that chance.

I once saw someone post that photo of Dresie and Casie mockingly. Funny thing is that person had no idea about photography, Ballen or the subjects. But ironically (unlike that idiot person) that photo of Dresie and Casie has become an important and valuable piece of photographic history. Those two men are now forever captured in history.

Should Ballen have cleaned them up before taking the photo? Wiped the drool off their face? Airbrushed them in photoshop? Or show them warts and all? Or worse should he only photograph conventionally attractive people? (Like we don't have enough of that already...) Why don't these guys deserve to be photographed and beautiful models do? Should we lock them in a room so that they won't disturb our fragile sensibilities? Is it these guys who are ugly or are we?