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Book Review: Ballenesque


Book Review Ballenesque Photographs by Roger Ballen Reviewed by Collier Brown Like a Eugene O’Neill play, Roger Ballen’s career has been one long journey to the end of night. Now fifty years into that journey, Ballen reflects on “the shadow” that runs through his work, a shadow he can no longer distinguish “from the person they call Roger.”
Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
Ballenesque
Reviewed by Collier Brown

Ballenesque.
Roger Ballen: A Retrospective.
Photographs by Roger Ballen. Introduction by Max Kozloff.
Thames & Hudson, London, United Kingdom, 2017. In English. 336 pp., 330 color and duotone illustrations, 11¾x12½".

Like a Eugene O’Neill play, Roger Ballen’s career has been one long journey to the end of night. Now fifty years into that journey, Ballen reflects on “the shadow” that runs through his work, a shadow he can no longer distinguish “from the person they call Roger.”

Nor is that shadow distinct from the cages, carcasses, birds and rats, dilapidated mattresses, and haggard faces that encrust Ballen’s photographs with dark, tectonic symbolism. Edmund Wilson, an early twentieth-century literary critic, once wrote that it is “the aim and the triumph of the Symbolist . . . to make the stabilities of the external world answer to the individual’s varying apprehension of them.” Ballen has, over the course of a few decades, perfected a style in keeping with Wilson’s insight.

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

Ballensque is an autobiography of style, a style that begs more questions than it does definitions. Why, for instance, do wires appear so often in the photographs? What’s with the animals and animal parts? What do the walls mean? Why Africa? Why the grotesque? Why the monster and the mystery? I could go on. For a style so instantly recognizable, these are questions that, as Flannery O’Connor said of Christ in the Christ-haunted South, cling like a stinger in the brain.

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

Ballen’s own questions about photography began in childhood. Adrienne, Roger’s mother, worked for Magnum in the 1960s. The family home in Rye, New York, exhibited street photography room to room—a source of intrigue and inspiration only enhanced by André Kertész, a friend of Adrienne’s. At Kertész’s apartment, Ballen discovered the power of the surreal. “I owe to Kertész,” he explains, “the understanding of enigma, the quixotic, and the formal complexity that underlies much of my work.”

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

From those early, influential years, document and dream, the common and the strange, become thematic antagonists. Ballen stands in the middle, balancing precariously on what he calls the “line.”

The Ballenesque line features for the first time in a photograph called Dead Cat, New York. It’s a street scene. On the left side of the image, a car speeds toward the horizon, a blur of metal and indifference. The painted line at the road’s edge recedes toward nowhere. And in the foreground, with one black, abysmal eye eyeing the viewer, a dead cat (which could easily be mistaken for a dog if it weren’t for the title) stiffens into rigor mortis.

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

But rotate the photograph counterclockwise, and the image becomes almost cartoonish. The cat, resurrected, lopes like a goat away from the automobile atop the tightrope of white line. Ballen’s visual vocabulary is born. “I found my line,” he writes, “my shadow, the path to my core—a central theme for the remainder of my career.”

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

The shadow and line gave Ballen the symbolic mutability that Kertész had mastered. But how to capture something so fleeting? How to lock it into place? How to make it durable? A geologist by training, Ballen gravitated toward the mines of the places he visited. Like the concrete road reaching beyond the horizon of the cat photograph, stone signified for Ballen longevity beyond mortality. Rocks surround life like a wall. Shadow, line, wall — the third symbol and most resilient feature of the Ballenesque. “The wall was paramount; it was not background, but articulated surface, identified with the picture plane. On the smudged surfaces could be found wires, photographs hung in an uneven, incoherent way, children’s drawings, grease and dirt stains. Like a painter [which Ballen had been, for a time], the ‘living wall’ became my canvas.”

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

For all the life this wall adds to Ballen’s style, death is a constant menace, not to mention a source of controversy. It parades itself alongside racial disparity, poverty, illness, violence, deformity, and taboo, all of which take center stage at various times, in various images. Some see in the work a voyeuristic sideshow of despair. But as the voyeur gazes ever inwards, the rats, pigeons, human bodies (without faces), stone slabs, and entangled wires strengthen symbolically. Make of those symbols what you will, but the popular fascination for Ballen’s photography — as seen in the Ballenesque music video for I Fink U Freeky by the South African hip-hop trio, Die Antwoord — suggests a deeper, collective familiarity with these images than many of us would care to admit.

Ballenesque. Photographs by Roger Ballen. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

Universality aside, Ballenesque tells the story of one man, one imagination, one journey. And to that end, I’d be remiss not to recommend this book for its story-telling as much as its photography. Ballen writes with precision, clarity, drama, purpose, and intuition. This retrospective will be the go-to for students bent on decoding Ballen’s symbols: “I have come from nothing, know nothing, and will become nothing,” says the photographer at the close of the book. But don’t expect the last word to be that simple. “You cannot beat life,” he adds, wryly turning his fatalistic creed counterclockwise. — Collier Brown

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Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).

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