Our latest Artist You Need To Know has been described as “one of the most influential and important photographic artists of the 21st century, [as] Roger Ballen’s photographs span over forty years. His strange and extreme works confront the viewer and challenge them to come with him on a journey into their own minds as he explores the deeper recesses of his own.” That is from his own site, which we encourage you to visit after reading our feature on him here.
Ballen’s works straddle the disciplines of performance, sculpture and photography, and are immediately recognizable, as he has constructed a world with players both unsettling and familiar. He was born in New York City but currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, which has been his home since the 1970s. Documentary photography was where he began, but this has grown and expanded into “the creation of distinctive fictionalized realms that also integrate the mediums of film, installation, theatre, sculpture, painting and drawing. Marginalized people, animals, found objects, wires and childlike drawings inhabit the unlocatable worlds presented in Ballen’s artworks. Ballen describes his works as existential psychodramas that touch the subconscious mind and evoke the underbelly of the human condition. They aim to break through the repressed thoughts and feelings by engaging him in themes of chaos and order, madness or unruly states of being, the human relationship to the animal world, life and death, universal archetypes of the psyche and experiences of otherness.” (from here)
More succinctly – and with a directness that echoes the strength of his lens and eye – Ballen has simply stated that “(my) pictures in some way ring a bell subconsciously, so people remember them.” He’s a prolific artist, and his artworks can be divided into several major bodies of work. These include more documentary series, ranging from 1968 to 2000, with early works where he captured the civil rights movement, Vietnam war protests, Woodstock and other less obviously iconic but essential images like his first publication Boyhood, a series of photographs of boys (chosen from 15000 images), shot during his four-year quest across the continents of Europe, Asia, Central and North America. His relocation to South Africa inspired Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986), where Ballen documented the small towns and villages in unmodernised “hinterlands” of Apartheid South Africa. In Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa (1994), Ballen shifted his focus and the impoverished white population were his subjects, people ‘who were facing political and economic anguish at the demise of an Apartheid system specifically designed to elevate them and guarantee government employment.’ His sympathetic yet unflinching – perhaps unforgiving – eye made this some of his best work, that the photographic critic, Susan Sontag praised as “the most impressive sequence of portraits [she’d] seen in years.”
Other series vacillate between a theatre of the absurd (his works from 2000 to 2008) and further psychological tableaux (2014 to 2016). The series from these periods include Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House, Asylum of the Birds and The Theatre of the Apparitions. We’ve included links to Ballens’ extensive site, for each of those publications, where you can see examples of the work.
Ballens’ Roger the Rat series, created between 2015 and 2020, ‘documents’ a part-human, part-rat creature who lives an isolated life outside of mainstream society. Roger alternately evokes empathy and revulsion, and in this manner, continues Ballen’s impressive ability to offer us portraits that – though ‘fantastical’ – are very real, and unrelenting, in their psychological impact.
In recent years, Ballen has evolved his practice even further, moving into colour photography and creative partnerships that manifest as installations, and even a collaboration with Comme des Garçons featured at Paris Fashion Week 2015. Several massive exhibitions of his work are on display this year (2021), at Fotomuseum Den Haag, Netherlands, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece, Jakopič Gallery, Ljubljana, Slovenia and Portugal Centre of Photography, Oporto City, Portugal. Again, his site has a comprehensive listing of his past exhibitions, publications and many images to tease you to do further exploration of Ballen’s fine work.
In conversation with ArtDoc Magazine, Ballen offered the following about his art: “What is the purpose of what I do? The goal is to challenge my own mind. To let the mind talk to itself. It is easy to use psychological terms, but if you really start to think about them, those terms simply fall apart, and turn out to be meaningless. If you want to understand art, words are not enough. We have the word art but what does art actually mean? What is its meaning and value? The purpose of photography is to enlighten me personally and invite me to learn from it. I am the mother; the baby is born and looks at the mother. And I like the baby and then he can hang on the wall in a gallery. Then I hope the photos have a transformative effect. I hope my photos have an impact on the viewer. I am not a social or political photographer. I am not interested in making political statements. My work is purely psychological and existential and of course aesthetic. All photos have a momentary character. They are not repeatable.”
You can enjoy more of Roger Ballen’s images and ideas here.