The Dark Poem of Roger Ballen: An Interview
Over more than two decades, Roger Ballen has developed a style of image-making that is firmly rooted in the documentary tradition of the great mid-century storytellers.
Over more than two decades, Roger Ballen has developed a style of image-making that is firmly rooted in the documentary tradition of the great mid-century storytellers. But he has consistently taken the notion of a photographic “document” as a mere starting point for an ever-deepening exploration into the human subconscious.
Ballen grew up in New York under the influence of the Magnum circle of photographers; his mother ran the New York office of the famous agency for many years when he was a child, and as a youngster Ballen considered Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, and Elliott Erwitt as so many uncles and tutors. He later studied geology and settled in South Africa, where he continue to make photographs, especially in back-country of that country around Johannesburg.
His well-received 2001 book Outland documented the underprivileged residents of rural South Africa. His follow-up book, Shadow Chamber (2005), wandered into a middle ground informed by his documentary training and his own imagination. He began photographing complex, fictional scenes filled with symbolism. In his introductory essay for Shadow Chamber, the late Robert Sobieszek wrote that Ballen’s “art tests our very conception of the reporting photographer creating tableaux that speak to, and not just about, our human condition.”
Ballen’s new book, Boarding House (Phaidon, $69.95) continues this rich, penetrating vision. Mark-making, sculpture, theater, and photography are all deftly woven together to create a cast of characters—animals as often as humans—that stand firmly before the camera, in real space and time, and yet somehow shimmer on the edge of immateriality, leaping out from a fantasy realm for a brief moment, only to recede into the unconscious the next. He has transformed a technical vocabulary and drafted a dark poem infused with all of the struggles and turmoil of our modern lives. As Sobiezsek mused, “little more can be expected of art.” Recently, American Photo contributor Darius Himes spoke with Ballen about the evolution of his work.