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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Aphorisms of Roger Ballen

The Hereford/South Africa Photography Festival kicks off on 17th May and some fine work is on show - you can download the festival programme here.

Top of the bill for me is Roger Ballen, a great photographer and a phenomenal speaker. Hear him speak and you get Ballenesque aphorisms mixed with performance and rhetoric. With a dash of Dr Evil thrown in just to let you know who you're listening to.

Some snippets of a talk he gave at the University of Wales in 2004.

"I have created a Roger Ballen World."

"The meaning comes from the eyes."

"What are we trying to protect when we make our walls white and clean?"

"We are scared of nature. We are scared of animals."

"The relationship between people and animals is adverserial and usually one way. People who think differently are fooling themselves."

"What if I told you after I took this picture, the man took the puppy outside and strangled it? Would you believe me?"

"Modern life has blocked the relationship between man and animal. That's why people go out and buy a dog or a bunch of flowers."

"The horns may be plastic but they still mean something."

"Work done subconsciously is most important - don't walk away from your footprints."

"The eyes only reach you because they have the same emotion you have. Blankness."

"I did everything. You can't take photographs like me."

In an interview with Photonews, he describes, opaquely as is his wont, his working process.

"It is almost impossible for me to explain with any objectivity how my creative process works. I believe that there are literally thousands and thousands of subconscious and conscious decisions that assist in the construction and culmination of one of my photographs.

The process of taking a photograph is never the same and I work step by step in an interactive process in the environment around me. This process always takes into account my internal sensibility as well as my long experience in working with the photographic process, in other words I am an artist and a scientist at the same time. It is not clear to me what a staged photograph ultimately means other than that the subjects were aware of the photographer or one manipulated the environment around them.

There are elements in my photographs that one could classify as staged but there are others that occur spontaneously as I take the photograph. It is quite an interesting point for me to note that I have never taken two great photographs of the same thing which comments not only on the nature of photography and time but on the fact that something spontaneously happens from moment to moment."

I always feel that for all the staged elements, you see something of the people he is photographing (although he is eliminating people from his pictures now - probably in a Dr Evil kind of way), be it psychological or physical - and that there is an atavistic profundity underlying his scratchy work.

It's the same with Alessandra Sanguinetti's series, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Nature of Their Dreams. They have a depth and beauty to them, and for all their staginess, the girls who are acting out their scenes perform beautifully and with a conviction and belief that comes from within. They might be staged, but they are also thoroughly convincing - they combine primary reflections ofwho Guille and Belinda are with the infinite possibilities realised by Sanguinetti's interactions with the girls.

Heather Morton writes about Sanguinetti's process (which in some respects is very similar to Wendy Ewald's way of working) as revealed during a talk a few days ago in sunny Toronto.

1. During her first two months of staying at the farm with the girls (she used the girls’ Grandmother’s farm for her previous series The Sixth Day) she didn’t think about a project but rather just “went with the flow”. It wasn’t until she reviewed the film at the end of this sabbatical that she realized that she had something and decided to go back for further, more specific exploration.

2. She started by having the girls interview each other about their dreams, interests etc. And she videotaped everything at the beginning. She said this was helpful for her to review and see what was working, and how she might change her approach the next day. Alessandra was eager to show the girls’ “life going by” photographically and the video helped her to “see what was happening and to recreate it visually” She elaborated: “In a child’s mind there is so much more than what you see”. She also showed the girls the video of themselves which both helped and harmed: they “saw themselves as stars of their own life” which peaked their interest in the project but the it also made them increasingly self-conscious.

3. Alessandra’s most important advice came when she was talking about her process and suggested that at this point in her career, making a good picture is not good enough:

It’s disheartening what you find yourself just taking good pictures- pictures that don’t have heart. Great pictures surprise me, they have depth and mystery.


Darrell Eager said...

His images are like a train wreck. I want to keep driving on but I already know what's happened.
But I also realize thats it's a dialogue that we must have. I just don't know how to start.

colin pantall said...

Hi Darrell - it's more like a car crash (though with car crashes I never know what I'll see until I see it), but you're absolutely right about the dialogue part. I think Ballen is a photographer who wants to make his subjects universal - so we can see ourselves in the people he photographers. I remember him saying "we were all neanderthals once" which is always a good thing to keep in mind and something that ties in with not walking away from our "footprints".

Timothy Archibald said...

This is the first written word about Ballen's work that really makes sense to me. Other times i've read him discuss his work it just sounds defensive and like he is the one trying to hide something.
This is all good stuff that i'll print out and keep and look at.

colin pantall said...

Hi Tim - he goes off in every direction and hits you left and right with rhetorical questions. He's the best speaker on photography I've seen.

I think he might have something to be defensive about - a friend saw him speak and Oliver Chanarin and Oliver Broomberg (South African) were there questioning his politics and voting record.

You can hear their views at the V&A (follow the link below - there are 3 parts) where they talk about the "intimate relationships" formed when they stay in a place for 3 weeks, though I guess the relationships Ballen has with some of his subjects might be a bit longer-lasting on occasions. Perhaps?


Anonymous said...

Beautiful exhibition of photographer Roger Ballen at BNF, Paris. Caroline-Christa, Paris

Anonymous said...

Beautiful exhibition of photographer Roger Ballen at BNF, Paris. Caroline-Christa, Paris

Anonymous said...

Beautiful exhibition of photographer Roger Ballen at BNF, Paris. Caroline-Christa, Paris

Murawska Iwona said...

Ballen is a amazing photographer ..