Roger Ballen

born 1950

Roger Ballen, ‘Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal’ 1993, printed 2001
Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal 1993, printed 2001
© Roger Ballen, courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London
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In Tate Britain

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Biography

Roger Ballen (born 1950 in New York City, New York) is an American photographer living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and working in its surrounds since the 1970s. His body of work, developed over a period of four decades, began in the documentary field but his approach has widened to include a fictionalised visual dialogue between people, their architectural space, found objects and domesticated animals. His approach has been described as "unusual" and "exciting".

Ballen describes his photography as psychological, exploring humanity's "shadow side" rather than being "dark". He say: "Shadow is better than dark, because dark for a lot of people connotates evil, and I always say it’s just the opposite. [...] The pictures shouldn’t be seen as dark, and I’m not quite clear what is ‘dark’, anyway."

Art historian and curator Peter Weiermair said that Ballen’s collaboration with his subjects meant that he had forsaken the critical role as chronicler of events, allowing his figures to become "protagonists in an existential drama". In earlier works these were individuals experiencing the dissolution of one order in South Africa in place of another; in the process they retreated to hidden territories explored by Ballen.

Weiermair said that the game of showing and seeing, involving model and photographer, is rendered irrelevant, while Didi Bozzini wrote that the relation between Ballen and his subjects disrupted the "laziness of our everyday gaze".

According to Weiermair, the archetypal character of Ballen's images "touches our subconscious", yet it is also through the conventions of black and white photography, outsider art and theatre of the absurd that we comprehend the interiority of Ballen’s landscapes. His practice has however been extended to include video and conceptual installations, pushing the camera further from its traditional role of "recording or capturing the real" while retaining its use as "provocateur" for an examination of all that is human, according to critic Robert J. C. Young.

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