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)