Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Transformative Eye of Roger Ballen

I'm a visual integrator. . . I am not an objectifier. . .
I am completely confident that I don't have to worry
about being inspired. . . Everything I need is inside. . . .
~ Photographer Roger Ballen, Lens Culture Conversation

American-born but a resident of South Africa since the 1970s, photographer Roger Ballen sees with an uncommon eye. What he shows us in his lens is described frequently as "disturbing", "voyeuristic", "freaky"; rarely is it less than "controversial". He articulately disagrees, explaining that his aesthetic approach is "about defining myself" and "transform[ing] what one might refer to as  reality." On what he describes as "fundamentally a psychological and existential journey", Ballen eschews use of color film in favor of black and white, because, he writes in the Introduction on his Website, the latter "does not pretend to mimic the world in a manner similar to the way the human eye might perceive." 

Ballen is no prettifier. His photographs could not be said to be beautiful in any way that most people define and understand the word. They are filled with unwritten narrative, which few of us would profess to acknowledge as our own; to rise from some dark interior we would be at pains to avoid visiting once, if at all. They are unsettlingly dream-like, surrealistic, outright odd. And they are undeniably riveting. You want to look away from them but instead feel yourself enter them, because you want to understand what it is the images are trying to tell you about the artist, about the subject(s), about yourself as viewer.

Ballen's twelfth and most recent monograph is Asylum of the Birds (Thames & Hudson, March 2014), consisting of photographs of people and animals — most notably, birds by the hundreds — inside a house in a Johannesburg suburb (the location is not revealed) to which images Ballen has added graffiti, drawings, paintings, and found objects. On his FaceBook page, Ballen has written, "I would like to see the pictures help people find out who they are: to find a side of themselves that they keep in shadow. The side they refer to as 'the dark side'." Ballen absolutely believes that such a place exists, in himself and in us. (A selection of images from the book may be viewed in the Image Gallery or at Roger Ballen's Asylum of the Birds Website.)

Asylum of the Birds also is a film, which may be viewed on YouTube in its entirety.

Cover of Roger Ballen's 2014 Book

In the 10:21-minute video below, Ballen, who has received numerous awards for his photography, music videos, and films, talks with Lens Culture about his work, including the series compiled in his book Boarding House (Phaidon, 2009). I think he's particularly perceptive about himself, his artistic vision, and his approach to documenting the world as he sees and transforms it. He doesn't seem to be concerned with what we think, a perspective I find enormously refreshing and self-assured.

A list of exhibition venues where Ballen's work will be appearing this year and in 2015 is found in the Exhibitions section of his Website. His work is found in many museum collections in the United States and abroad, including Berkeley Art Museum in California, Centre Georges Pompidu in Paris, Haifa Museum of Art in Israel, and Tate Britain in the London. 

Ballen recently was the subject of the posts "Inside Roger Ballen's Mind: A Place of Refuge and Madness", at the Lens blog of The New York Times (James Estrin, March 11, 2014), and "Roger Ballen: 'in a microsecond you create infinity'" at The Telegraph (Lucy Davies, March 8, 2014).

Ballen has established a foundation that seeks to advance education in photography in South Africa.

Roger Ballen Photography on FaceBookTwitter, and YouTube

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