adamgifford
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
  Roger Ballen photographs as metaphors
Published NZ Herald May 9, 2009
Roger Ballen's image of twins Dresie and Casie was taken in Western Transvaal in 1993. Photo / Supplied

Roger Ballen's photographs journey from the disturbing documentary images of his early series in rural South Africa to the disturbed interiors of his recent compositions, taken around Johannesburg.

It started with a journey, with the young American hitting the hippie highway in 1973 and travelling overland from Cairo to Cape Town.

"I stayed awhile, then went on another journey from Istanbul to New Guinea before going back to America in 1977," says Ballen.

His first book, Boyhood, was drawn from pictures taken during those travels, but his name was made by the work he did after returning to his wife's country of South Africa in the early 1980s, which is included in the retrospective at AUT University's St Paul St Gallery.

Ballen has been seeing the world through a lens since he was a small boy. "My mother started one of the first photography galleries in New York in the 1960s, and I got seriously interested. I knew the leading photographers of the time."

That interest gave him a comprehensive understanding of the craft, but it didn't extend to wanting to become a commercial photographer or a photojournalist - the options for a photographer in the era before photography was considered a proper art.

Instead he secured a PhD in geology and mineral exploration, and continued to take pictures as a hobby. Prospecting in the back blocks of South Africa, Ballen would shelter from the heat of the day by knocking on people's doors.

From those encounters came the images in his first important collection, Dorps, Small Towns of South Africa. The following book, Platteland, extended the ideas and created sufficient impact for Ballen to seek interest outside the country.

"My early pictures were more documentary in terms of the questions I was asking, and the images were more about the culture I was in. For the Dorps project the question was, 'What is the unique aesthetic sensibility of these small towns?'.

"In Platteland, the pictures of poor white South Africans on the margins were a metaphor for emotional states."

By the mid-90s, when he settled in Johannesburg and pursued photography fulltime, the work was becoming increasingly complex and metaphorical. The next collection, Outland, took a more theatrical approach, with its subjects performing in mysterious tableaux.

"They would add something, I would add something. I was asking questions like how would people deal with their ultimate fear, how would they deal with shadows."

That exploration of metaphor continued in later collections like Fact of Fiction, Shadow Chamber, and the most recent, Boarding House, in which fragmentary human or animal subjects compete with drawn and stained walls, worn out furniture, grime and mysterious sculptures.

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