Current Issue #488

Roger Ballen’s photography of the absurd

Roger Ballen’s photography of the absurd

Roger Ballen is one of the most influential and important photographic artists of the 21st century, and Adelaide audiences will have the opportunity to experience a selection of his work at GAGPROJECTS.

By presenting Ballen’s work between 1996 and 2016, the Adelaide Festival exhibition will highlight what has become known as the Ballenesque style. This style incorporates drawing, painting, animation and theatre in his photography to express a psychological message. Often seen as dark and disturbing, Ballen’s work is challenging and invites viewers to question their inner state of mind. “I think my photography goes beyond the cultural and social, it deals with the theatre of the mind,” claims Ballen.

While Ballen has had a long career spanning 50 years he believes the style he is known for today developed around the late 90s with his Outland project, a somewhat theatre of the absurd. It was here where he started to work with subjects in a theatrical, performative way to create his vision of reality.

Roger Ballen's Concealed, 2003
Roger Ballen’s Concealed, 2003

These concepts developed further in the 2000s with Ballen incorporating drawings into the works. Over time, the drawings have become more sophisticated, leading to pictures resembling theatre sets or installations in which people and animals and the drawings interact to create a so-called Ballenesque reality.

As Ballen’s work has evolved so too has the medium of photography. When he started out in the 60s photography was more about documentation. “The goal of a serious photographer in those days was to go out onto the street, to be in difficult situations and to find moments that other people weren’t seeing, which were a revelation,” Ballen says. “The image was more sacrosanct. It was a much more lengthy process and a much more professional process.”

Up until 2016, Ballen worked with film, producing black and white images in a mostly square format. In 2016, he started to use a digital camera and introduced colour, the results of which surprised him. “I started taking colour pictures and I was really amazed how interesting they were. I wasn’t very pro colour before, but some of the images were actually better in colour than black and white,” he says.

Roger Ballen’s Head Inside Shirt, 2001

Now that we live in a world saturated with images thanks to Facebook and Instagram, part of Ballen’s practice is to ensure audiences remember his images. “In the early days there was value to a good image, they stood out in a way,” he says. “Now it’s harder for people to find the images that stand out because we are so inundated with them.”

The art of photography is at the forefront of Ballen’s practice and by creating challenging and thought-provoking images, he hopes to continue its relevance. “There is coherency to these images that’s not on a phone or a tablet but in a gallery, so you can see these pictures on their own,” Ballen explains. “I feel they will give people a greater understanding of the potential of photography and where photography can take the viewer and the photographer.”

Roger Ballen
Until Sunday, March 31

Header image:
Roger Ballen’s Hoodwinked, 1996

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