It’s been hard to escape Roger Ballen over the last few weeks – an OCA study visit publicised on WeAreOCA provoked some initial discussion; a posting in the OCA Flickr group led to even more; then an article in British Journal of Photography; and a fellow OCA student attending his masterclass and reporting on the experience in her blog.
It is all connected with the major exhibition of his work at the Manchester Art Gallery, of course - Shadow Land: Photographs 1983-2011. I didn’t previously know much about him or his work; and my initial reaction to the images as they have appeared in the press and on the internet recently has not been particularly positive. But it has, as I say, been hard to escape them and they have crept into my consciousness to such an extent that I felt I had to go and look at them. I visited the exhibition last weekend. Still the images don’t feel to speak directly to me; I don’t see something in them or about them that engages me – yet, I havn’t been able to let them go either.
Interesting to observe other people’s reaction – most people feel a very definite sense of repulsion at some of the work, yet most people can’t look away either. They are uncomfortable and challenging images. I could try to analyse why – the dirt, perhaps; the disturbing subject matter of his early more documentary work; the surreal and bizarre scenes in his more recent work; and so on. I have felt compelled to read more about him, and I could summarise that here in my learning log/blog – the fact that he is essentially a formalist; that the work explores his own mind; that his work also finds inspiration in the natural world; and so on. I could write about his life – son of someone who worked for Magnum; direct contact with Kertesz, Cartier Bresson etc.
However, what I have found myself exploring and what I want to write about here, is the process of making art. Ballen’s images are both beautiful – their crafting and their presentation – and repelling; but how do they come about? What process does he go through that results in the bizarre outcomes in Asylum? And how can his way of working help and inform my own?
Ballen is almost exactly the same age as me. Our lives couldn’t have been much more different but we all tend, I think, to feel an affinity with those whose experiential span is a close match to our own. He has been a ‘photographer’ for fifty years, but says that he didn’t really sell a picture until he was fifty years old. So, here is the first important message to extract from his creative process. Ballen’s art is something that he does because he wants to, not because he seeks to make money from it. He is dedicated to it, and has been throughout his life, even though he has a career as a geologist.
Alongside dedication we might put the word discipline. Those words often run together and they apply to Ballen. He works on his art in the afternoon, he says, in this interview; does admin and geology work in the morning and then turns to his art between about 12.30 and 5pm. Even when he was a full time geologist, he would spend dedicated time on his photography. So Ballen makes regular time for his art and practises it in a manner comparable to any ‘job’. He may talk about his work in metaphors – mining the interior of his mind and bringing the results back to the surface for all to see – but the professional craft of bringing it into being is a carefully disciplined process.
That same interview contained the answer to another question that had been in my mind when looking at his current work. How does he actually go about creating the scenes that he photographs? Walter Guadagnini, in an Aperture article that is featured on Ballen’s own site here, says “... now the obsessive filling-up of that ... space ... gives prominence to the presence of the author’s interventions during the preparatory stage.” I found myself also concerned to understand that. He doesn’t sketch out the scene beforehand, it seems, but puts the objects together physically in the space. So I think of him going to his ‘studio’ (we’ll call it that, though I have no information to that effect) after lunch; moving into his creative space; bringing together objects, animals, people (sometimes, but less often these days); building a ‘set’ or a ‘still life’; working on the lighting (he uses flash); setting up his camera; looking at the set up (which does sometimes include live birds and animals); and waiting for the moment to open the shutter. In other words – to state the obvious – he is a photographer, working with subject, light, camera etc like the rest of us. The lighting, the textures, the composition, the framing, the quality of the prints in the exhibition, and so on – it is, I think, the quality of his craft that compels us as much as anything in his work. Ballen is a craftsman using well honed and practised photographic skills to present his art. No great surprise in that, of course, but it is a simple and powerful message for those of us still exploring how we too can express ourselves through photography.
And my fourth and final thought in this context is that Ballen found a voice and has continued to speak through it. The exhibition expresses superbly the creative journey that he has made over the last 30 years or so. The work he produces now is so very different from the early images of remote rural townships, and yet the voice is so very familiar. He comments himself, in the interview, that he worked with the same type of people, as he went from documenting to directing, that many of the items – wires etc – that he uses now were present in his early works. The textures of walls and fabrics; the presence of dirt; the animals – all are present in the township images. The stunning tones of grey in his images – they demonstrate the craft again, but also provide an essential and consistent undertone to his creative voice as well.
I am probably going to go back and take another look at the exhibition. I remain unmoved by Ballen’s work, at the personal emotional level, but I am fascinated, even inspired, by the man and his creative process. I don’t feel a great desire to look at his images, but I do feel there is a great deal that I can learn from them, and from the man himself.