Known for uncanny psychological scenes depicted in black and white, Roger Ballen is an influential photographer whose work examines the deep recesses of the human mind and the taboo underbelly of South African society.Read More
Born in New York, Roger Ballen received his first Polaroid camera in 1963 as a gift from his aunt. This sparked an interest in photography that endured into his adult life. Ballen studied psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, before going on to complete a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. An interest in psychology permeates through his seminal works.
Ballen first came to South Africa in the 1970s to work as a geologist and has lived and worked there since 1982. Travelling across the country for work, he began taking pictures of the architecture and interiors in the small towns and villages he came across. These were the subject of the early series 'Dorps' (1983—1986), which acted as a precursor to the psychological documentary photography that has defined his oeuvre.
Roger Ballen's art practice, spanning over five decades, began in the realm of documentary photography before evolving into surreal, black-and-white 'Ballenesque' psychodramas, to which he has also added painting, drawing, sculpture, theatre, and film.
In the early 1990s, Ballen began to focus on the inhabitants of the poor communities he passed through in South Africa, depicting poor white communities and individuals on the fringes of society. Ballen's seminal body of work from the late 1990s and early 2000s, encapsulated by the 2001 photobook Outland, expanded upon this subject while morphing into more staged images.
In the 'Outland' series, Ballen's subjects, consisting of mostly deranged men and their domestic animals, act out scenes for the camera in a semi-fictional, deeply psychological form of portraiture. These images are presented in the square, black-and-white format that is typical of Ballen's practice.
Capturing the marginalised in unnerving psychodramas, the artist uses the surrounding squalor and psychological intensity of his subjects as metaphors for the exploration of one's own subconscious.
In later series begun in the late 2000s, the images became increasingly blurred and ambiguous in regard to location, presenting a deeply psychological space that could be real or internal. These were inspired by a fringe community of outcasts inhabiting a warehouse in Johannesburg. Among these figures are vagrants, witchdoctors, criminals, the mentally ill, and all sorts of animals.
In series like 'Boarding House' (2009) and 'Asylum of the Birds' (2014), Ballen begins to incorporate child-like drawings, graffiti, and found objects, also using sculpture and painting to construct his scenes. Animals, an unpredictable component, feature heavily, while dolls and dummy parts increasingly stand in for the human subjects. The imagery in 'Asylum of the Birds' is void of humans except for hands, feet, and mouths that eerily poke out through the walls and rags.
Since 2011, Ballen has reproduced the Ballenesque settings of his photographic works in museums and public spaces. His first was an in-situ installation at Museum Het Domein in Sittard, Netherlands, which Ballen constructed in the same way as his photographs, recreating a rundown interior complete with vandalised furniture and disturbing drawings and graffiti on the walls.
These environments have grown in scale and complexity. In 2015, Ballen worked on transforming an entire house, sourced from the forest in Mantta, Finland, and put on display in the town's Serlachius Museum. Mannequin figures stood in as inhabitants for the rundown setting. Ballen's House of the Ballenesque (2017) for Les Recontres de la Photographie, Arles, involved taking over an abandoned house the artist once visited in 2012. For the 2018 Wiesbaden Biennale, Ballen reworked an abandoned shopping centre.
Film has also played a role in Ballen's practice. Beyond the documentaries accompanying his photographic work, in 2012 Ballen collaborated with South African cult band Die Antwoord to create a music video for I Fink U Freeky, filmed in a Ballenesque setting. Ballen's Theatre of Apparitions (2016), a standalone animated film, brings to life some of the bizarre drawn figures in Ballen's works like a psychological thriller.
Roger Ballen has received several accolades for his photographic and video work, including a special mention at the UNICEF Photo of the Year Awards in 2001, Photographer of the Year at Rencontres d' Arles in 2002, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bokeh SA Awards in 2019.
Roger Ballen has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions.
Solo exhibitions include The World According to Roger Ballen, The Hague Museum of Photography, Netherlands (2021); Roger Ballen: In Retrospect, Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa (2020); Roger Ballen's Theatre of the Mind, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Auckland (2017); Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C (2013); Roger Ballen Photography, State Museum of Russia, St. Petersburg (2004); Roger Ballen, Royal Festival Hall/Hayward, London (1995); Roger Ballen, Pretoria Art Museum (1986).
Group exhibitions include From the Collection. Gifted, S.M.A.K, Ghent (2021); Unleashed: Roger Ballen and Hans Lemmen, Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht (2018); The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, International Centre of Photography, New York (2012); PEEKABOO!, Helsinki Art Museum Tennis Palace, Helsinki (2010); Making Faces, Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne (2004); Stepping in and Stepping Out, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021