‘Shadow Land’ – Roger Ballen’s photographs from 1983 – 2011
The photographer Roger Ballen is world renowned for his powerful and evocative images, which with consistent processes and format, still remain timeless today. Manchester Art Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Shadow Land’ offers a huge collection of Roger’s photographs spanning from 1983 to the present day, showing not only a chronology of work but also his evolution as an artist. Ballen’s documentary yet fictional style has certainly developed over the years and his most contemporary work offers a surreal painterly style which is far removed from the realist portraiture of his early photographs, such as the infamous Dressie and Casie (1993). His consistent square monochrome format goes far beyond simply black and white, and includes an extensive palette of grey and charcoal, presenting his subjects in a darkened and harsh reality.
Ballen’s photographs have a strong sense of freezing time, and as an artist that still uses a camera with film, Roger relies heavily upon chance when trying to frame the perfect instance. But it is this chance element which the artist loves. Roger’s subjects may completely contradict the direction given by him, but these are often the outcomes which he deems most successful. Working with live subjects, and certainly in his later work an abundance of animals, Roger says his photographs are extremely difficult to compose and capture, but the beauty of his work is that the images still remain so fleeting. The elements of the photograph find a temporary relationship which gives Ballen’s photographs their fictional connotations; the relationship may be real in the artist’s mind but completely invisible to the subjects.
Roger describes his work as ‘imaginary realism,’ and his pieces certainly make the viewer question what is and is not really happening within the image. His work, in particular the ‘Platteland’ series, serves to bring to light previously unseen corners of society in South Africa, where the artist has resided for 30 years. What makes Ballen’s photographs so resonant is perhaps their honesty. When his early series first came to circulation the world was shocked that poor white people actually existed in Africa, and it is in these ways Roger’s work makes the viewer question their own ignorance surrounding the unknown.
All of Ballen’s photographs are aesthetically powerful, and his consistency as an artist makes it hard to tell which image is from which era without the help of a label. The questions which run through all of the work in this exhibition is what do the pictures mean, how could they be described. The photographs have a stark clarity yet are confusing at the same time. Roger feels that his work cannot be described, and that the meaning should remain open-ended, especially with so many juxtapositions happening within the images. This is particularly true of the ‘Asylum’ series, which is the artist’s most recent venture. With people now completely gone from his work, all of these photographs are of wild birds living in an old house in Johannesburg. The birds, a symbol of peace, freedom and flight, contradict their context, a place of entrapment, chaos and a darker side of life, as can be seen perfectly in Dove Catcher (2009). Roger likes to think of the Asylum as both a place of insanity and a place of safety. His pictures aren’t necessarily dark, but the viewers are, and it is paranoia and a fear of the unknown which manifests itself in Ballen’s work.
‘Shadow Land’ certainly informs the viewer of Roger Ballen’s progression in photography, and to which direction he has taken his work, leaving behind figural images to concentrate on animals, and his ever frequent inclusion of wall drawings which cleverly amalgamates drawing with photography, particularly in Roar (2002). While photographing this darker side of reality may seem like it exploits the subjects, the people in Roger’s pictures have in fact welcomed their new fame, and feel that they have been given a new sense of self and importance. Ballen’s work does not seek to be political in any way; it is simply a comment on the psychological and physical human condition. The subjects become actors performing their own lives, blurring the line between the real and the fantastical.
Roger says all his work has been a personal journey, and he hasn’t become influenced by anything else in the art world; his consistent format and aesthetic is indicative of this. The ‘Shadow Land’ exhibition allows the viewer to experience the artist’s journey and the evolution of his photographs, while continuing the struggle to find any specific meaning in this stunning yet enigmatic work.
Interview with Roger Ballen
LB: Roger, would you say it was your move to South Africa which spurred your interest in photography, because I know before you were a geologist, so was it just the things you saw there that made you think ‘I need to take photographs’?
RB: Well I first came to South Africa in 1974, I hitchhiked there from Cairo and Cape Town. Then in 1982 I did a PHD in geology. South Africa was going through all sorts of transitions at that time. It’s hard to know what part of the pictures are South Africa and what parts are my head, what are parts are people’s heads and other countries, so it’s a mixture of all these elements, and over the years they’ve created a big part of my aesthetic.
LB: The title of the show is ‘Shadow Land,’ would you say this refers to the way in which your work brings to light previously unseen corners of society?
RB: I think the shadows are a part of you, the spirit of you, the spirit of the world, and a side of the world you don’t necessarily see all the time, that maybe you don’t want to define. It’s the other side of the mind, the other side of the place, the alter ego. So I think what you’re looking at here is part of a physical space but also a psychological space, and what I call the ‘shadow space.’
LB: What makes your work special is the relationship between the different elements within the photograph, for example the faces, the wires, etc, would you say this is purely aesthetic or that the pictures each tell a story?
RB: Well I think each picture in a way has to be completed; the mind has to feel a completed narrative so that the images have a coherency. If the mind doesn’t believe there’s a coherency then it won’t understand what it’s looking at. I wouldn’t say, oh well the story started here and ended here, but there has to be an element of completion in most of the pictures. Most of the pictures have a logic to them that follows through.
LB: You have said that your pictures are really difficult to capture, for example the live animals, yet they seem like such fleeting moments, is this effect intentional? Do you prefer them to look impulsive or that they’ve been composed?
RB: I like my pictures to be clear and concise, focused. I feel that as a photographer one can’t fight the laws of the media, of the laws of certain phenomena in the world around us. Photography, as far as I understand it, it works best when the viewer sees the photograph as a moment, this is really crucial. A great picture is one that makes the viewer believe in it.
LB: What is it about the things you photograph that captures your imagination?
Well I think every picture you see up here is about my imagination, they are all ultimately the product of my imagination. These things don’t necessarily capture my imagination but they have been transformed by it. People ask me ultimately what inspires me, I say I don’t work with inspiration, I work with hard work, intensity, commitment, passion. I work hard because I have a passion for taking pictures, and recording my life through the camera.
RB: A lot of your photographs appear to blur the line between the real and the fictional, especially the images with drawings in the background, in what ways would you say they do this? Do you feel that the relationship between the elements of the photograph may be real in your head but fictional to the subjects?
RB: Well when you look at the pictures I think you say, is this a place, is this possible? In a documentary sense I could actually encounter this place, I’m sure it exists in some way or another, but you’re never sure what’s part of my imagination. So in my work there’s a fine line between what could be documentary and what could be imagination. It’s really a question of how far could I transform these places.
LB: Is there a way in which you hope people will interpret your work, or any moral message viewers should take from it? The powerful aesthetic definitely resonates through you, is this simply your intention?
RB: Well my intention and my hope is that the pictures stick in people’s heads, and help them to better understand themselves, and better understand their relationship with the world around them. Basically I hope the pictures expand people’s consciousness in some constructive way, but I would never go beyond that, I don’t know what the pictures do to people ultimately. There are all sorts of thing that people can’t put into words, and I can’t necessarily understand how they feel, so I’m talking very generally. I just hope the pictures form a constructive relationship and act constructively in one way or another. Art ultimately should be about the artists giving themselves and helping to better people’s consciousness, their psyche, making them more aware, that should be the purpose of viewing, but that’s just my opinion.
By Liz Buckley.
Images: Puppy Between Feet (1999), and, Head Inside Shirt (2001).
Courtesy, the artist and Hamilton's Gallery, London.
Both this review and interview are to be published on the ArtFace website, and they made it possible for me to go to the press day! Read more here - http://www.artface.co.uk/