His exhibition Roger Ballen: Photographs has just closed at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. I was fortunate enough to have the time to see it today, before it is taken down. I don't think the show will travel again soon, but Ballen is represented by the Gagosian Gallery, and he has published books of his work.
This is an artist who perfectly understands the medium of black and white photography and makes his art in a land famous for a history of thinking in terms of black and white. He found most of the human subjects in this show living in poverty in towns full of unemployed whites who have not benefitted from recent reforms. Most of the models are white, but there are some black Africans as well. The show has garnered attention for being horrific and creepy because the models are often shown filthy and shirtless, with bare light bulbs and dirty walls. I disagree with this evaluation of his work.
Too often, people assume that the photograph is the closest thing to reality. Many people have difficulty thinking of ANY photograph as art, because of the medium's long history as a documentary tool. The photograph stands as a yardstick of reality. "That painting is just like a photograph," we say, or "he has a photographic memory."
Photography, however, is not just a tool, but a complex art form in which the artist uses light, timing, and composition, and often painstaking planning. Ballen exploits all of this technique in his crafting of his photographs. He truly understands the flat nature of the photograph, especially the black and white photograph. In each finished work, the identities and lives of his subjects are not as important as his sense of line, composition, and chiaroscura (light and dark).
Ballen's work has been justifiably compared to Diane Arbus', but Ballen's work is far more artful and complex than that of Arbus. Arbus is fully recognized as a documentary photographer. Her subjects were photographed in their environments, and there was very little manipulation of pose. In each photograph, Arbus virtually bowed to the subjects' realm. While Arbus sought out unusual posers, she was very much concerned with flaunters, transvestites, nudists, eccentrics, and congenital abnormality: people who wore their differences on the outside. She had a true admiration for this. The photographer's own demons were trapped within her; Arbus dealt with her anxiety and pain by committing suicide in her forties.
Ballen is not at all a documentary photographer. While his work has brought to light a marginalized population of impoverished white South Africans, his sense of surface is the real subject matter. Like a master craftsman, Ballen works toward his finished product, a composition of lines and shapes on a flat sheet of gloriously glossy paper. There is no escaping the fact that Ballen has befriended his models. In their faces and postures, there is a great sense of trust, relaxation, and, at times, play. In this way, Ballen has developed the traditional artist-and-model relationship that invigorates a long history of works of figurative art. This is an important key to appreciating Ballen's work.
The fact that Ballen is continually and unfortunately discussed in the same breath as Arbus (documentary and portrait work) and Joel-Peter Witkin (primped and ornamented fetish contrivances) shows how the art world has not fully understood the scope of his work. Witkin and Ballen do share a superior inventiveness for the camera, but that's where the similarity ends.
In every work in the current exhibition, Ballen composes by looking toward the flat surface of his paper photographic print, a yet to be realized object at the time of his photographing. He always uses a wall backdrop, a powerful plane that sometimes appears quite massive, a sensation usually determined by a low, dark horizontal plane such as a bed or floor at the bottom of the composition. Never totally smooth, the wall is often distressed by stains and the stresses of time. Corners, when they appear, seem to be nothing more than a vertical line. Often an electrical outlet, with plugged-in cord, sits as frankly upon the wall as any chalk drawing or smudge that Ballen's camera means to capture. In a few photographs, the wall is all: Hand Drawn Hearts on Wall (2000) is one such work, and it is no less powerful than many of the works which include animals or human figures.
Ballen's keen eye for line is seen in his use of stained walls, wire objects, chalk renderings, and shadows. A fine nuance of delicacy is the effect of a deceptively simple-looking work, Man With Back to Viewer (1998), where a hairline shadow made by the camera's flash defines the profile of the model, who is pressing to the wall a white cross, possibly made of two thin sticks, which barely casts a shadow at all. The mottled wall seems written upon by the lines of the cross and the man's black edge of a shadow. Tangles of wire are used in various works to evoke pencil scribbles with a great graphic impact. Often placed near a figure, as in the breathtakingly beautiful Twirling Wires (2001), the photograph melds abstraction with the figure, transcending any sense of the documentary or of realism.
Ballen's excellent use of texture (Puppy Between Feet, 1999), chiaroscura (Elias Coming Out From Under John's Bed, 1999), and form (Dog, Feet and Wires, 2001) all show what a brilliant painter he actually is. While squalor and hardship can be read on the faces of his models, his occasional use of masks (Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003, for one) reminds the viewer that his work is about surface.
Ballen does not ask for sympathy, tears, laughter, or disgust. He does not allow the viewer to learn about the personalities or pathos of his models. Skin (warts and all), drool, wrinkles, or staring eyes are of the body only. This is the realm of the outside, not necessarily of inner suffering or psychology. As an artist, Ballen concentrates on the appearance of things available to the camera's eye. Unaided by computer manipulations, his focus and vision bring an exceptionally abstract type of imagery to contemporary photography.
copyright 2004 Renée Melchert Thorpe