Roger Ballen’s work is one of my great inspirations. He has created a fascinating & shadowy universe through photographing the impoverished whites in their rural South African villages. Since the 1980’s American expatriate and former geologist Ballen turned his camera lens onto the insular world of these Shadow Land people. The images feel like walking into a 1920’s mental ward and becoming a part of their reality. The subjects look like they left this world long ago, or never actually landed, retreating into their own childlike reality. His palette is a gritty range of grays and blacks punctuated by fascinating arrangements between the models and their surreal world. The rooms feel barren, but may contain naive graffiti scrawled across the cold cement walls, or puzzling still-lives within this irrational world of make-believe and artifice. His shadowy vignettes are the visual equivalent of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale, where everything is not always pretty & bright, and strange things happens in veiled places.
This challenging work has mesmerized me because Ballen has captured some of the central hues of my childhood. My German grandparents were very old-school and clannish. They lived in town, but it felt like the old-country because they only had a wood stove until the late 1980’s. They would send me to school with warmed stones from the firebox wrapped in greasy rags-now tell me that’s not a fairy-tale!! Having survived two world wars, and the period of wild inflation in Germany when you could buy an apartment building for a ham, my Grandfather would save old nails, screws, and even craft new handles for broken hammers. Everything was patched, mended or reworked to extend its purpose.
We had the front of the house, which was brighter and more welcoming, and then the back of the home was more mysterious. It contained many secret thresholds. It was chilly and stagnant in those cloistered rooms, with enough blankets on each bed to smother a small child. I remember feeling both constricted and held in those weighty sleep chambers. Because of my Grandparent’s upbringing I can smell Ballen’s environments; the musty odors of old work clothes and hoarding; the boiled meat & potatoes these kinfolk eat.
A fabulous post on Ballen’s Portland, Oregon show
considers the critics who say he is an “artistic mercenary, exploiting his poverty-stricken, post-apartheid white subjects by photographing them in peculiar, unsettling tableaux that made bizarre theater out of their outsider status and appearance. They might as well have been the hillbillies from “Deliverance.”
Ballen addresses this by saying “ There was something that attracted me to these people, and it wasn’t political or social. It was something about myself.”
What do we see about ourselves in these gateways between vision and madness, the intricate shadows we each carry from our lineages?