Roger Ballen exhibition

Am due to see this exhibition and although it is only mid-April, have already started considering it.

There is the notification of the OCA study day with discussion …

There has also been an OCA report from “Marmalade” who attended a masterclass with Ballen …

I read the article about him in the BJP. It is quite revealing about Ballen as a photographer and what he is doing but surely no substitute for the exhibition in spite of some well reproduced photographs. He describes himself as someone who plummets the depths of the unconscious and brings out stuff to share with others.

I listen to a radio programme about Ballen who is an American photographer based in South Africa. It mentions the “shocking” images that came out of South Africa which were not necessarily documentary rather portraits from an area known as Platteland, an area of dirt poor white people; they included a strange photograph of two white twins, deformed and drooling. Ballen found them quite unique, transforming the situation of meeting them into a great photograph which many people look at and question. Why do they focus on that particular image? Ballen continues to work in black and white and has turned the camera inward in his latest series of photographs that focus on both animals and humans; it is called Animal Abstraction. Ballen does not see himself as socio-political rather psychological in his approach, obsessed with the human condition and the image. The photographs come from his mind and his stomach, his identity. Worked in isolation for a number of years before showing his work. Admits to being an obsessive photographer, obsessed with his own condition; photographs are a way he can find out about himself. All his photographs are portraits of himself.

A photograph is made up of thousands of pieces that need putting together; it is like a painting. Transforming the world around one internally to present an external vision of the world.

What is Animal Abstraction about. One has seen such images before since they are in one’s mind. Ballen does not try to figure out the meaning of his work; the images are about the realm of the senses, of the mind. He says he is trying to take a photograph of the inside of his mind; turn your eyeballs backward and what do you see?

Seeing a video he has made attracts me to the group performing it as well as the photographer; some of the dance moves are pretty incredible and one wonders how much was Ballen and how much the group …

The lyrics are violent but the imagery is quite striking; I find it a bit macabre and wonder whether I want to go and see this photographer’s work. Since Peter Haveland will be present, I think there will be a worthwhile discussion afterwards so I shall go.

Another comment which emphasises the need to focus on the work rather than the artist, a view that I like to endorse yet which is stated somewhat forcefully in this context, can be found here …

from here one can access Sean O”Hagan’s review in The Guardian

A fellow OCA student has been and his blog makes a good read; Stan is from the OCASA …

Some valid points are made in the OCA Flickr forum …

Anned writes, possibly a quote from elsewhere … “They’re all self portraits of the inside of his mind.”

John Umsworth qualifies this by saying …

“Mind you he says that we, as viewers, recognise his images because they are also portraits of our minds.”

Anned says … “I think that’s how all art works, I don’t think its mental though, more feelings, thoughts, ideas mixed all up together in a muddle, or maybe that’s just me.”

John replies … ” I saw his work in Manchester; at once compelling and yet repellant. His photographs aren’t muddled, they are very, very carefully constructed as inward views.”

Tutor Clive White quips in … “Well it doesn’t have to be about hidden demons it can be about hidden fairies too! Hahahaha!!”

The conversation then turns to considering the link between the camera shutter and the subconscious.

I decide to listen to another interview (

Here Ballen talks about finding his voice while photographing in South Africa and started going into people’s houses to photograph,discovering as he did, certain motifs such as cracks on walls, marks on walls, wires, stuffed animals, sheets and pillow cases as well as a certain kind of person that reflected the human condition (this work continued between 1985 to 2001). From this came the book Dorps then Platteland where Ballen focused on a group of whites who were suffering mentally. This was followed by Outland in which Ballen started to interact with his subjects, a significant development for he felt himself becoming an artist rather than just a photographer; pictures became a matter of essence rather than documentary content. In the morning Ballen works at administration and also his other job as geologist until midday when he turns to his photographic work. He does not pre-plan his images such as by making a drawing of what he is going to photograph or thinking about the image beforehand, does not see that photography works this way, it is more instantaneous. One can set things up but photography is about freezing time and time is always changing. Works with a troupe of people hence some faces reappear; more interested in the interior than the exterior. The general misunderstanding people have about photography is that it is merely an objective tool when it is also very subjective, the photographer responding in his/her own way. Ballen never studied photography studying instead psychology and geology as well as economics but he did come from a photographic background, knowing “great photographers”such as Cartier Bresson and Kertesz; looked and listened a lot. Once he started taking photos he was hooked. Did not sell photographs until he was about 50 after 30 and more years of plodding along. Self motivated and had another career for commerce. Never thought about an audience, more of a hobbyist. Only in the last 15 to 20years has photography become so popular as an art form. His success was surprising; his work proved controversial and he got death threats and this proved a shock to his system. Working as a geologist is about going beneath the surface and his photographic work aims to do the same, to penetrate beneath the veneer of everyday life. What about a sense of place in his work? For Ballen,this is incidental, it is about one’s interiority although as a photographer one still has to deal with the external world. He could do these photographs elsewhere yet his photographs do reflect the place he is in and are influenced by it. Ballen still uses flash; this is often used as a hard light to create a better depth of field and a more focused image. This kind of light reflects the violence of South Africa. We are violent and have suppressed that; wars still going on around the world. His work is a  metaphor of the human condition! Contemporary art reflects the alienation and loss of contact with the natural world; his work is about reconnecting us. I find myself accepting much of what Ballen is saying ;he makes some good points.

In an attempt to better understand the work of Roger Ballen, I acquire a book called “Roger Ballen: Photographs from 1969 to 2009” It has a couple of learned essays at the beginning.

Ballen has a background in photography since his mother was an early member of theMagnum Photo Agency while he knew Kertesz as a child. He did not however “make it” as a photographer in his native New York or America although he did become a photographer there, but moved to South Africa where he became a geologist enabling him to make enough money to support himself. It was also here that his photographic work flourished with images of the poor whites of South Africa, a class of people seldom considered by media as a whole since the exploitation of blacks by whites takes up much of the South African narrative.

There are two essays and both seem to be explaining Ballen to the reader. Do we really need an explanation of Ballen’s work!? I find it fairly straightforward since the images are quite powerful yet this does not mean I like it. If I understand it more then perhaps I will like it more.

Ulrich Pohlmann starts by putting Ballen into a nutshell. His work has gone through many transformations and he is now considered one of “the most unusual and exciting developments in contemporary photography.”