A line segment of golden mean proportions continually collapses onto itself, smaller over larger, and this derelict thought winds its way through the lines I follow and try to intercept with some curve intersecting an axis of familiar in Roger Ballen’s images.
Lines become tropes, drawn on walls, faces; strings hang and dangle, implying lines crossed, divisible. And those lines, seen and unseen, somehow splicing or stitching—depending on the image, depending on the viewer—the emotional and intellectual.
“The marks and lines that you see in my photographs are a result of an interactive process between me and the inhabitants of the place,” Ballen explains. “The challenge for the viewer and the critic is to decipher and interpret the meaning of these drawings in relationship to the objects, animals, and people in these photographs. As the meanings are predominantly visual in nature, it is quite difficult to comprehend them with words.”
Feasts of in-between. There are definitions, and then meanings. The visual, then the content that spills long after. Air where the music hangs. The only euphony is afterthought. And in Ballen’s expressive compositions, duality—visual/linguistic, interior/exterior, psychological/physical, questions/answers, darkness/light—and its insistence on balance implies a reconciliation through consideration. The photographs appeal to the viewer to overlap heart and mind in exploring their content and resonance.
“The best photographs are the ones there are no words for, that penetrate the inner being before the conscious mind can react,” Ballen says.
On the outskirts of Johannesburg, in between gold dumps, is a house. Wild birds live there, and small animals, and people seeking refuge. The owner of the house allows down-and-outs to stay there for very little cost on the condition they allow the birds he collects to fly about uncaged. Ballen named the place Asylum.
“The photographs in this series are a result of the interaction between me, the people and animals, and the space,” Ballen tells me. A book titled Aslyum of the Birds, published by Thames and Hudson, will be available in early 2014.
The project is the result of six years of focus, following the discovery of the house when working on his previous series, Boarding House. As with much of Ballen’s signature, the photographs in this body of work derive from the real here-and-now world, yet are deeply psychological in mood and tone and steeped in metaphor, iconography, and allegory.
The images are at times haunted by birds, at other times celebrated with them. In discussing the project, Ballen relays, “Every image in this book contains a bird in one form or another. Birds have many archetypal meanings, [for example, representing] beauty and the link between the heavens and earth. What dominates this project is the aesthetic that develops when the birds from the Asylum encounter a Roger Ballen world.”
A fugue is considered the purest counterpoint musical form, with repeating themes and voices. It is also psychogenic, a dissociative disorder where a person loses his or her identity and leaves home to create a new life; during a psychogenic fugue there is no memory of the former life. Fugue is derived from the Latin word for flight.
There are words, and then the sounds of words. Lines from here to there.
“The word asylum means a place of refuge and a place of madness,” Ballen says. “The people whom I photographed and worked with on [Asylum of the Birds] sought refuge in the place that I refer to as the asylum. I am not certain how the birds viewed the space. It could also be thought of as a place of madness where elements of the deep subconscious dominate.”
A chord belongs not only to music but to mathematics as well—a line that links two points on a circle.
Yes, there is music in the background of the shadows and drawings and people and animals and walls and windows in Ballen’s images. The canopy of ambiguity and illusion is visually informed by the noise in our heads and in our hearts (the viewers’ as well as Ballen’s.) These photographs, as with all of his work, evoke. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable; the imagery can be startling at times, and at other times, alluring and enveloping.
The term still life has been mentioned by others in referencing these photographs, but Ballen feels a more accurate description is imaginary realism. He discusses creating images that pivot on the “decisive moment,” a more ethereal concept transcending stationary objects and drawings. By focusing the creative mind behind the camera on the interpretive act of inhabiting an internal space through physical and tangible images, Ballen builds doors and windows—perhaps into a piece of himself, but allowing for viewers to engage with their own psyches as well.
“I never think of what I will photograph before getting to the space; I prefer a quiet, silent mind,” Ballen says. “My images consist of literally thousands of decision points which have to be reconciled as I work with the image. The possibilities and permutations are almost limitless and impossible to predict.”
Ballen’s stature in the international photography world has long been regarded as elevated and influential; his work is widely exhibited and collected, and it frequently wins awards. Ballen’s personal exploration of the landscape of the subconscious has pushed past both conceptual and formal limits in photography and expanded the dialogue between allegory and narrative, fact and fiction. Many know of his childhood: born in New York into a photograph-appreciating family, his mother a picture editor for Magnum in the 1960s and then owner of her own photography gallery in the 1970s. Never formally schooled in photography, Ballen worked as a geologist before embarking full-time as an artist.
A hitchhiking trip from Cairo landed him in South Africa in 1974 (his home for the past 30 years), where he began photographing rural villages in a documentary style. His many projects and books since reflect an artist who takes an honest look at truth—social, political, and personal. And truth is not necessarily pinnable, it is not necessarily static, which perhaps is one of the continually held threads carried throughout Ballen’s images.
“Truth is very ephemeral,” Ballen tells me. “It is like when I am in the countryside looking at the dark skies and all of a sudden a shooting star lights up the sky, then disappears. Blackness returns.”
The etymology of the emotional experience is perhaps best reflected in Ballen’s observation of both light and dark, a call and response of sky and star, both seen and felt simultaneously.
Ballen says, “My images are the result of the interaction between [the] conscious layers of my mind with the subconscious. It is virtually impossible to discern where one aspect of my mind takes over and the other ends. Photography is an art and science; I believe one needs both aspects to enable one to create powerful, meaningful images.”
Relative to this, I ask him if his work as a geologist and the way his mind was honed as a scientist permeate his way of seeing as a photographer.
“Geology is fundamentally a science; nevertheless, working with the earth for so many years has given me a deep understanding of the ambiguity of time itself,” he relays. “The process of finding ore bodies is one of penetrating the surface; looking deep inside the belly of the earth to find a core. This is not a process dissimilar to the one that I involve myself in [with] photography.”
Ballen has shot black-and-white film for nearly 50 years, and has said he believes he’s part of the last generation that will grow up with this medium in this format. In contrast to color work, which on some level mirrors the human eye’s perception of the world, black and white is an abstraction, highlighting the act of interpretation of experience. While art is of course subjective, the photographs and drawings in Ballen’s work seem to invite the improvisation of reality, the brief revelations through symbols and drawings, the expanded interplay of shadow and substance, light and dark, that pushing on the black-and-white format provides.
“The world is mysterious; it is virtually impossible to be certain about almost anything,” he shares. “If my photographs reflect on the essential ambiguity of life, that would give me great satisfaction.”
When I ask Ballen why he’s stayed in photography all these years and what he believes about the medium, he responds, “The purpose of taking photographs has always been the same for me; it is a tool to discover my inner psyche. It is the best means that I have found to locate and reveal very strange, ambiguous aspects of myself. If I ever find all the pieces, I will give up photography.”
While Asylum will be out in book form next year, a different ongoing project continues to move forward. For eight years, Ballen has been producing imagery on glass and photographing it with black-and-white film. Archetypal and psychological symbols create narratives and imagery exploring the conscious and unconscious. For Ballen, the body of work is significant, as it completes a transition of imagery away from documentary realism, which began his photographic journey in the 1960s, and reveals his evolution as a person and artist today. He views this new work as more akin to painting and drawing, with film as the medium of transference and translation.
The syntax of borrowing techniques and concepts—from other creative media, from studying people and animals and places, from scanning the earth and sky for literal and implied stories and essentially shards of wisdom—seems to be the marker not only of Ballen’s imagery but his sensibilities, process, and commitment to observing and asking questions of himself, and in the process tapping into a personal as well as collective subconscious. The physical world is a clue giver: a beacon sometimes, a counterpoint at others. But the quest for ever-widening perspective has allowed for the development of an utterly unique visual interpretation of beauty, hope, fear, and many other aspects of the great human experience Ballen so thoughtfully explores.
I believe the most profound concept or word in human life is nothingness
“My photographs have allowed me to study the human condition in a very personal way that I hope influences the way people see each other as well as themselves,” Ballen says. “The camera is a tool, just like a paintbrush is to a painter, a pen to a poet.
“I believe the most profound concept or word in human life is nothingness. There is an infinite black core to my existence; I doubt that I will penetrate it in any real way. If I did, I might not be able to differentiate it from an illusion.”
And perhaps that question of differentiation is one of the charges we are assigned to consider when engaging with Ballen’s work—for ourselves, as well as in the context of the whole wide, swallowing world. Lines. From here to there. Or somewhere.
American-born photographer Roger Ballen has lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, since the 1970s and is known for his emotive, boundary-pushing imagery and storytelling through metaphor and symbolism. Originally shooting more in the tradition of photojournalism, his work evolved over the decades to a singular, interpretive vision, at times dark, always black and white, and often posing questions about the lines between interior and exterior self and interpretation.
Ballen’s work is held in museum collections worldwide and he is the author of twelve books. The exhibition, Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen, will be on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, June 2013 through February 2014. He is represented by Gagosian Gallery.
Kirsten Rian has spent the past 25 years creating work as a multidisciplinary artist in the literary and visual arts fields as a writer, painter, curator, and musician. She has led creative writing workshops domestically, as well as internationally in locations like post-war Sierra Leone and refugee relocation centers in Finland, using creative writing as a tool for literacy and peacebuilding, and locally is a volunteer language facilitator for non-native speakers. She is widely published as an essayist and poet and is the author of two books. She is the poetry editor at The Oregonian newspaper, and is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship in Nonfiction from the Oregon Arts Commission. As an independent curator, she has coordinated more than 375 photography exhibitions, and picture edited or written for over 80 books and catalogues. She teaches art history, curating, creative writing, and nonprofit arts courses as an adjunct professor.