Roger Ballen was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa. His work as a geologist took him out into the countryside and led him to take up his camera and explore the hidden world of small South African towns. At first he explored the empty streets in the glare of the midday sun but, once he had made the step of knocking on people’s doors, he discovered a world inside these houses which was to have a profound effect on his work. These interiors with their distinctive collections of objects and the occupants within these closed worlds took his unique vision on a path from social critique to the creation of metaphors for the inner mind. After 1994 he no longer looked to the countryside for his subject matter finding it closer to home in Johannesburg.
Over the past thirty years his distinctive style of photography has evolved using a simple square format in stark and beautiful black and white. In the earlier works in the exhibition his connection to the tradition of documentary photography is clear but through the 1990s he developed a style he describes as ‘documentary fiction’. After 2000 the people he first discovered and documented living on the margins of South African society increasingly became a cast of actors working with Ballen in the series’ Outland and Shadow Chamber collaborating to create powerful psychodramas.
The line between fantasy and reality in his more recent series’ Boarding House and Asylum of the Birds has become increasingly blurred and in these series he has employed drawings, painting, collage and sculptural techniques to create elaborate sets. People are now often absent altogether; replaced by photographs of people used as props, by doll or dummy parts or where they do appear it’s as disembodied hands, feet and mouths poking disturbingly through walls and pieces of rag. The often improvised scenarios are completed by the unpredictable behaviour of the animals whose ambiguous behaviour is crucial to the overall meaning of the photographs. Ballen has invented a new hybrid aesthetic in these works but one still rooted firmly in black and white photography.
In realizing this exhibition, Roger Ballen has allowed himself to be won over by the possibilities of integrating photography and drawing. He has expanded his repertoire and extended his visual language. By integrating drawing into his photographic and video works, the artist has not only made a lasting contribution to the field of art, but equally has made a powerful commentary about the human condition and its creative potential.
This retrospective covers three decades of work that culminated in the following books:Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986), Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994),Outland (2000), Shadow Chamber (2005), Boarding House (2009), through to the new work from the series, Asylum of the Birds (2014).
About the Book
Outland is the culmination of almost twenty years work for artist-photographer Roger Ballen and amounts to one of the most extraordinary photographic documents of the late twentieth century. Beginning by documenting the small ‘dorps’ or villages of rural South Africa, Ballen’s photography moved on in the late 1980s and early 1990s to their inhabitants: isolated rural whites, scarred by history, in the process of losing the privileges of apartheid which had provided them livelihoods and sustained their identity for a generation. The results were shocking, both powerful social statements and disturbing psychological studies.
Through the late 1990s and into 2000, Ballen’s work progressed again. Continuing to portray whites on the fringe of South African society, his subjects begin to act. Where previously his pictures, however troubling, fell firmly into the category of documentary photography, these pictures move into the realms of fiction. Ballen’s characters act out dark and discomfiting tableaux, providing images which are exciting and disturbing in equal measure. One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.
Originally published in 2001 and named Best Photographic book of the year at PhotoEspaña 2001, Madrid, Spain, a new and expanded edition of Outland, featuring 45 previously unpublished pictures from Ballen’s archive and a new essay by Elisabeth Sussman, Curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, United States, is due to be released in April 2015. The book is introduced by Peter Weiermair, former Director of the Rupertinum Museum in Salzburg, Austria and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy.
Outland was published by Phaidon Press, London, in 2001, and republished by Phaidon Press in 2015.