To encounter the South Africa-based American photographer Roger Ballen means to experience the uncanny nature of his photographs. The artist enjoys showing them to you in an easygoing, straightforward manner over lunch, which he barely touches, choosing instead to reveal some of the secrets of his art…
Roger Ballen has lively, piercing eyes that seem to look far ahead. When he talks about his work, his lanky figure spins around like an eel caught in a fishnet. “We have to do the work,” he insists. He admits he works every day of the week, except Sundays. Every single day is devoted to his meticulously planned and thought-through images. In Roger Ballen’s work, everything is subject to reflection and prepared in great detail. “First you must find a subject,” he explained. “It might be a chance encounter in the street: a character. A dog. When you have your subject, 5% of your work is done. Now you just need to do the remaining 95%…” He creates mises-en-scène which reproduce a reality that had caught his keen eye, and which he carefully stages. Roger Ballen bought a warehouse in which he built a small house where he creates his images. “You need to arrange people and objects in a certain way,” he said. In response to a quote from the painter Cézanne on the secret dialog of objects, he added, “things have a soul.” They have a soul that the photographer has been capturing on film for the past thirty years. With a graduate degree in geology, Roger Ballen was not predestined to become an artist. “I had never thought I would make a living as a photographer,” he mused, swearing he doesn’t care about the art market. “I seek challenge. You have to keep reinventing yourself when you create, or else you’re worth nothing.”
Roger Ballen is exhibiting for the first time a photography series he shot in color, although from the beginning he seemed wedded to black and white. “I’ve changed my mind. Color is interesting. Let’s just say I kept my distance for a long time because color lets the viewer believe that the image is more real, that it is closer to reality. Black and white is more abstract,” he theorized. Talking about photography in general does not come easy. “If I were to put my work into words, I think I would say that I am a poor photographer,” Ballen asserted, insisting that whenever he tries to talk about his art, he is at a loss for words. “Most of the time, what happens is beyond words.”—Like in those drawings made by Johannesburg residents on the walls of their homes, which the photographer has been cataloguing with relish since the mid-1990s. He has never asked them where the drawings came from or why they made them. “If I start asking questions, they will close up and won’t let me photograph them anymore…” What’s certain, however, is that the artist marvels at the faces crudely drawn in charcoal, at the characters conjured up out of thin air, a ghostly people come to haunt the walls… For Ballen, art brut possesses a direct power of evocation and a forthright sincerity; it is authentic and primitive, which is why the photographer appreciates being able to document it. Roger Ballen also admitted that he came to photography because it allowed him to record visual installations he enjoyed making. When asked if he might see himself as a stage director or a filmmaker, he smiled, hesitated, before replying, “why not.” What matters to him, however, is never being pigeonholed or classified in his art; rather, he wants us to look closely at what he is trying to show. He lamented that “nowadays, the world is flooded with images. It is becoming more and more difficult to look closely at an image.” The exhibition is an opportunity for an encounter between a viewer and a work of art. This is what Ballen is aiming at and this is why he decided to show his work at the Halle Saint Pierre, a museum dedicated to his beloved art brut. This is the largest exhibition devoted to Ballen’s work ever organized in France.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
The World According to Roger Ballen
September 7, 2019 to July 31, 2020
La Halle Saint Pierre, 2 Rue Ronsard, 75018 Paris