Roger Ballen is a photographer who sees before he looks. Having been behind the lens for nearly 50 years, first as a youth, then as a dedicated amateur while working as a geologist in the mineral extraction industry in South Africa, he has had decades to make the craft his own. A footloose New Yorker, he moved there permanently in 1982; he soon began to photograph the different layers of society he observed in the small villages and towns of predominantly white South Africa while on the road for his job. Ballen’s first book of photographs from these side trips, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa, was published in 1986.
With Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994), he received considerable attention, which led him to dedicate specific days of the week to spend on photography. Within a decade, photography became his full-time pursuit; during that time his images shifted from their concern with the social condition of poor whites marginalized by society towards an interior exploration of his own psyche.
Left to right: Cat catcher, 1998, from the series Outland; Rats on a kitchen table, 1999. © Roger Ballen. Website
Ballen began introducing graffiti-like drawings and sculptural forms to his imagery, and to engage his subjects in acting out their fears, their hopes, and their dreams for the camera. During this period he explored the human condition as perceived through the subconscious. For example, if you've never smelled the unmistakable odor of poverty in a home, it somehow becomes evident, if in a different form, in Ballen's photographs. In his book Shadow Chamber (2005), people vanished from the scene altogether, replaced by signifiers of a psychic darkness that is nearly unbearable. Ballen said, in a 2010 interview, “The introduction of drawing and graffiti into my photographs added another dimension of meaning to my work….Through this interaction I have been able to expand my vision of the world inside and outside of me."
Until the publication of Boarding House (2009), Ballen’s images have been seen primarily in book form—the format he preferred as a global, portable vehicle more intimate than a gallery, starting at a time when the kind of photographs he was making were considered too controversial to be shown in post-Apartheid South Africa. Since then, his work has been exhibited globally, from South Africa to the Americas.
Recent work by Roger Gallen is currently on view at Etherton Gallery through November 12. 135 S. 6th Avenue B, Tucson A info
Roger Ballen’s forthcoming book, The Theatre of Apparition, will be published in November by Thames & Hudon. Info