In the ’80s, after Roger Ballen moved to South Africa, his black-and-white photographs of the remote countryside and the people who lived there could pass for straightforward documents. His early work there had the stark simplicity of Walker Evans and the brutal directness of Lewis Baltz, but gradually that hard surface cracked, and an unsettling touch of madness seeped through. Here were white South Africans, isolated, inbred, and poor, who looked like the most benighted and blissfully oblivious citizens of Appalachia. When a book of these photos, Platteland: Images From Rural South Africa, came out in South Africa and England in 1994 (it was published here two years later), Ballen got death threats and a sudden rush of notoriety that left him stunned. The righteous outrage of the Afrikaner minority was compounded by the fact that the photographer, though married to a South African, was an outsider—a New York-born, Larchmont-raised geologist who lived in Johannesburg and took pictures on his trips into the field. What right did he have to expose the country’s erstwhile ruling race to ridicule and shame?
“I knew Southern Africa better than most people,” Ballen says. “I’d been there for some time and I’d traveled about 200,000 miles over a decade or so, so I knew it like the back of my hand.” But the controversy over Platteland stung him, and pushed him more decisively in a direction his most radical photos had already taken: away from deadpan social documentation and toward a kind of private, improvisatory theater of the absurd. In his introduction to Platteland, Ballen suggested that his pictures might “reveal an essential aspect of the tragedy that pervades this troubled land.” Now he hoped to move beyond that land—”to strip anything of South Africa out of my pictures”—and investigate a more universal realm, a place where tragedy and comedy were so intimately intertwined it was hard to tell them apart. The startling result is Outland, a time bomb of a book published by Phaidon early last year and just now detonating in a show at Larry Gagosian’s uptown space (980 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, through February 16). Since Ballen’s only previous New York show was at Chelsea’s under-the-radar Tarranto Gallery in 1996, his sudden appearance in the stable of one of the world’s most powerful art dealers is cause enough for talk. (So is his slot as a finalist for this year’s lucrative Citigroup Prize alongside big guns like Thomas Ruff and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.) Elton John, who already owns a good number of Ballen works and bought others from the show, was at the opening, along with half the photo editors in town, and even if some of the comments were cutting—”manipulative,” “creepy,” “exploitive”—the buzz was fierce.
And no wonder. Ballen’s photographs are unforgettably odd. Nearly all of them are made indoors, with his subjects’ bedrooms and living rooms serving as the stage for dramas devised on the moment. Because the walls are usually bare and the furniture sparse, the spaces suggest stripped-down institutional cells, and the people in them appear to be acting out—their every expression, every gesture, thrown into high relief by Ballen’s harsh flash. In one picture, a painfully skinny man in nothing but gym shorts stretches out on a bed with a thermometer in his mouth; standing by, his arms raised like wings, is a plump young boy in the same shorts, laughing so hard his eyes are nothing but slits. An ineffective-looking security guard stands on another bed, truncheon in hand, next to his shapeless girlfriend, who sits staring into the camera through glasses that magnify her eyes cartoonishly. On yet another bed—this one little more than a pitted slab of foam—a man in shorts stands holding a globe, an unlikely Atlas with a big, sleeping dog at his feet. Animals feature in many of Ballen’s photos, including a tiny puppy peeking between grotesquely grimy feet, a watchful cat perched on a sleeping girl, a pig cradled like a lover in a fat man’s arms, and family of white rats scampering across a kitchen table. But his human subjects, sometimes naked, often nearly so, are Ballen’s least inhibited and most disturbing menagerie.
Ballen thinks of these people—most of whom he met on the street in Johannesburg, where he lives, and Pretoria—as his repertory company: “I consider myself like Ingmar Bergman in some ways, working with the same crew and the same actors year after year.” Though that statement might sound a bit pompous, in person Ballen’s self-regard is almost endearing, tempered as it is by his obvious discomfort—he seems as unhappy in his body as his subjects—and head-over-heels engagement with photography. And there’s something appealing about an artist who’s spent virtually all his creative life far from the art world’s front lines. “All my goals in photography have been books,” he says. “I’ve never geared my pictures toward the art world, so the work’s been driven in isolation, by personal desires and personal needs. I always felt the camera was a personal rather than a collective tool. The camera was a tool of my self.”
Sitting in an office at Gagosian several days after his opening, the 51-year-old photographer, bearded and gangly, talked about his work as if it were a lover no one had bothered to ask him about before. Ballen was a psychology major at Berkeley before getting his Ph.D. in geology at the University of Colorado, and his conversation tended to veer into heady issues before it got back to earth. He was on solid ground when it came to talking about the people in his photos, and one thing just led to another.
“Most of the people in the Outland series I’ve gotten to know for some period of time,” he said. “My previous photography had been made by driving around a lot, meeting people, and maybe never seeing them again. It was all in the countryside, driving and moving. The idea was that I almost had to go back to nature to find the source. But I started to look around the neighborhoods in Johannesburg, and began to find places that I could work in. I decided to stick to that area, and I started going back to the same house over and over again, and developing a different kind of confidence and a different way of seeing. I was going into a barren room week after week, and that required another approach. I couldn’t be passive anymore. So I began to take the courage, first maybe to put a mark on a wall when it needed a mark. Or change the wire from this side to that, or put something else up there or take something down. It started to become more interactive.
“I was setting the scene. Sometimes I feel like a man who makes installations. I feel like I’m a painter; I feel like I’m making sculpture. And after all the painting and sculpture is done, then the photograph appears. You can set the thing up, but there’s a point where events take over, and that’s where the real creative moments come. It’s something you can’t conceive of before you walk in there. It’s almost a collective creativity, which is much greater than my individual creativity, but without me being there, would the event have ever occurred?
“I can’t tell you how important it is for me to watch for the accident. Ideas come from watching the accident or the movement, and that becomes the thing that jumps the picture, and you can build on that. Somehow, you have to get a leap of the imagination. Ultimately the pictures are about one thing, and it’s my imagination. I have to stretch my imagination; I have to build this thing in a place with chaos. The room hasn’t been set up for me. The photograph is a reality imposed on another reality.
“Unless you do something that’s completely abstract, once you’re dealing with people in a place, it’s almost impossible to strip out everything, but that’s the line I’m going in. I want to be where Beckett is. I want to strip to the core of the humanity, not strip to the core of South African society. Is my work fact or fiction? Nobody would say of Beckett that this is about Ireland. But I’d like to get out of everything that has to do with South Africa. If it ends up having to focus on the dot on the wall, let it be that.
“The people that you see in these photographs mean different things to different people. I get myself in all sorts of dangers by trying to characterize these people in words, but I would say they’re people who feel trapped, feel paralyzed. Think of the characters in Beckett’s plays, the figures in Bacon’s paintings. They’re people who can’t control events any more.
“But people tend to look at them and say, ‘Oh, they’re poor, they look like they’re institutionalized.’ People say, ‘Well this man is exploiting these subjects!’ The actual relationship is about as far from exploitation as the man on the moon. I’ve known these people for so many years. They drive me crazy about taking pictures and coming up and having me to dinner and this and that. I’ve helped their families. I send some of the kids to school. I pay for funerals. I’m involved with these people on every level. I give the pictures to the people, and they love the photographs; they find them funny, usually.
“The people have a certain presence, and a lot of people find it a very disturbed presence. But I feel I’m succeeding as an artist if people walk out somewhat disturbed. Some people spend their whole life trying to avoid being existentially disturbed. I want to get underneath that mask and make a sense of disturbance. For me, the image is like a virus-tipped bullet. The virus gets into the cell and takes over the cell and makes it duplicate on its own formulation, and good art does the same: It goes in and transforms the mind. If it doesn’t get inside, it doesn’t work. You gotta get inside.
“Ultimately, all you’re seeing out there are self-portraits. All I’m trying to do is define my own shadow. There’s nothing more and nothing less to those images.”