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Interview: Roger Ballen on Outland

Interview Roger Ballen on Outland photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter talks to Roger Ballen about the expanded re-issue of his classic book Outland and the evolution of his photography.

Outland by Roger Ballen. 
Published by Phaidon, 2015.
Earlier this year, Phaidon released the reprint of Roger Ballen’s photobook OutlandOutland marked an important and unmistakable shift in Ballen’s work, making it a pivotal project and publication in the career of the artist. Originally published in 2001 and featuring Ballen's portraits of the inhabitants of rural South African villages, the Outland reprint has received a good amount of attention in the last two months, encouraged by the release of an accompanying Outland video. This mini-documentary introduces some of the subjects of Ballen’s photographs and follows them through the Outland, an area Ballen has worked in for years.

This new printing is an expanded edition that includes 30 additional images that the photographer and his assistant discovered when revisiting his archives, and an essay that elaborates on Ballen’s practice and history by Elisabeth Sussman, Curator from the Whitney Museum of Art.  In this interview, Melanie McWhorter asks Roger Ballen a few questions about this new re-launch and Ballen elaborates on his practice, his influences and how books have played an important role in his career.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

Melanie McWhorter:     Outland is a project that you worked on from 1995 to 2000 that was initially published in a book in 2001. Why did you include additional images in this new printing?

Roger Ballen:     You know, I just found so many great photographs. It’d be a shame to have left them in boxes. The thing is when Outland was produced, this was really a hobby of mine. I just worked by myself. I didn’t have any shows. I lived in... I'm still in South Africa. There wasn't really that much interest in photography here. It was really an individual enterprise what I was doing in a lot of ways. I was very prolific during this period. I took a lot of photographs. At the end, I remember every Friday I used to look at the contact sheets and choose the different photographs. Some Fridays I was a little tired. Some Fridays I was distracted. Some Fridays I might have had a cold or something like this. I missed a lot of pictures. I didn't show them to anybody. I just missed them. I have an assistant called Marguerite. She's very helpful. I'm still using film. I'm still using the same camera I started out with in 1982. It’s a Rolleiflex film camera. Sometimes she finds pictures that I didn't notice; also chooses ones that are better than I chose. That was the nature of what I was doing at the time.

MM:     When you go and take these photos, you only take one camera with you?

RB:     Yeah, I only take a Rollei, which is a 2-1/4 film camera. I’ve been using this camera now since 1982. I'm the last generation. I actually grew up in a black-and-white world. I'm happy with that stuff. It's nice and still exciting to get the contact sheets back. I'm not saying that you can't do the same work with a digital camera, I just feel very nostalgic and sentimental towards the black and white. I like the idea that you don't really know what you've taken until you develop the film.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

MM:     When I was looking through Outland, there seems to be sequencing that connects faces, lines and shapes. How do you create a narrative within your images and how does that same narrative translate into the multi-image object of the book?

RB:     The thing is, there's only one way of doing these things. It's like taking pictures. You just got to put things on the floor and see how they work together. Try to find visual relationships. There's no other way of doing it. Just seeing how things jump together, integrate together into some organic whole. You keep cutting and pasting the images together, the chain gets longer and longer. Hopefully you get a rhythm that's fluid and builds on itself. There's no other way of doing this except, for me, putting them on the floor. I remember that I did this in a hotel in Buenos Aires in August. I was there in Buenos Aires for a week and I had a fair amount of time. I took little context pictures, put them on the floor. I just worked solidly on this thing for about a week. Then I felt I got it. That was the only way to do it. I don’t think in words. I really never go out and try to achieve anything that has a word to it. I go out and try to find visual relationships that work, that somehow or another impact my mind at the time. Then I get the pictures back, I’ve always said, if I can put a word to it then it's probably not a good picture. The picture should go beyond verbal comprehension.

MM:     There's another interview were you say there has to be a logic to dreams. You're talking about not using words, but are you still thinking about the concepts of logic and the archetypes of narrative when you're looking at your images? Are you trying to build a narrative with a beginning and an end?

RB:     No, I'm a scientist and an artist at the same time. I've been at this for nearly 50 years. I work consciously and intuitively and when I feel the complexity. There's two things I look for, I guess. One is simplicity of form. You look to see in my photographs, the forms are very clear and precise but with complex meaning. It's always important that that relationship holds fast when I'm taking pictures, that the forms are clear and fluid, integrated, organic. The meaning that comes out of it is complex. In its own way has the complexity of something alive. That's the key to being an artist, that the work feels alive, stays alive when it's not alive. That's what you're trying to achieve. Work that penetrates and challenges you and hopefully penetrates other people's minds and stays there.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

MM:     In the essay for Outland, Elizabeth Sussman talks about how some of your subjects “are powerless figures, trapped and inert, unable to escape or exert force upon the world around them – and in a sense they are the Everyman." You talked a good bit about some of your philosophical beliefs behind this, but are you trying to create a space where the viewer can explore universal qualities of humans within your images?

RB:     No, I don't have any purpose in what I'm doing except that I do it. I don't really go out and try to work with explanations of what I'm doing. I go out and create pictures. I go through different periods. Each period may have a little bit different emphasis than the next. Things and ideas that might pervade my mind, might be in the back of my mind. You can see for yourself for example in Outland. I think one of the ideas is pervading my mind; does chaos dominate the world order? That was an important thing. The concept of human absurdity tended to be in my mind in relationship to people like Samuel Becket or Harold Pinter, who have appealed to me for some time.

Then you have these verbal ideas in your head. Then when you go out there, they don't help at all. The camera has no ears. You have to find visual relationships that somehow or another synchronize in your consciousness and materialize them. It's one thing to be able to have these ideas, but it's another thing to materialize them. That's what a lot of people can't do. You can explain human absurdity if you’re Becket or Pinter or whatever. I thought, here's a camera. Make a comment about that. Where do you start? What do you do? How do you get there?

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

Those things may have been prevalent in my mind and made me start to develop a visual style around that. You build on the visual style as time goes on, other pictures come forth and you build on those. Then there’s a point where you'll be one series behind and start with another. Most of my projects, I give them five years. I sometimes start out with that concept. I start out with birds. I start out with a place called the Outland. I start out with a project for Shadow Chamber and I work in a place called the Shadow Chamber then I just go on ideas.

The real building blocks for my photographs and are my own photographs. It's where I learn 95% of what I do. It's the pictures I take and building on that and seeing my mistakes, seeing how far I can take ideas that come out of the pictures I take. My aesthetics is really visual but the meaning behind the work is multi-dimensional. They're mostly psychological, philosophical statements rather than cultural statements. They're more geared toward the concept. People say to me, "Are they political?" I say, "Yeah, they are political." They help one part of the mind talk to the other part of the mind. That's the problem I see on the planet, repression of the mind, repression of the instinct, repression of the person being able to talk to themselves in some way. Hopefully the pictures get in their head and somehow or another help them reconcile.

That would be guessing. I wouldn't want to judge any success of this.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

MM:     You collaborate often with the subjects of your photos.

RB:     Yeah, this is the beginning. Towards the end of Outland, some of the later Outland pictures start to having drawing in them. This is beginning what I referred to as the transitional period. It started about 2000 to 2003 where I was still doing portraiture but there was drawing in the picture. Then about 2003, during the Shadow Chamber period the drawing takes over and there's very little portraiture left.

The thing is I'm fundamentally a black-and-white photographer but if you look at the later imagery, you see it the evolution and integration of painting, drawing, sculpture, insulation, but always through black and white photography. There are very few people who are interested in the artist — I'm not talking about normal photographers — artists who can do what I do, because they don't actually understand photography. It took me about 40 years of doing this to get to being able to figure out a way of integrating painting, drawing, sculpture making, installation making into a photograph that works as a photograph.

It's very tricky. It took me a long time to get there, step by step by step. I had a show at the African Smithsonian Museum two years ago. It was called, Lines, Marks, and Drawings. It showed how drawing developed in my photography all these years. It took a long time to germinate but that's primarily where my photography is right now. It's really dominated by drawing and photography. The thing is, I still believe in the moment in photography. It's still the most crucial aspect that separates photography from the other art forms. Capturing a moment that the viewer believes is unrepeatable.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

MM:     Talking about that transitional period in Outland, were there specific images that might have started to cause that shift?

RB:     I think if you look at some of the images like this portrait of Sleeping Girl. There's a line above her. That was an important link between Outland and the next series. There were a lot of comic photographs in there. For example, puppy between feet, which was on the cover of the second Outland book. This was an interesting story. I always thought I wanted to get closer to my subject but I couldn't. I just had this 80mm lens for two and a quarter camera.

I was in New York, in '98 and '99 and I went to B&H camera. I said, "Do they make anything like this?" They said, “Somebody just sold us this used one that fits onto the Rolli the other day, would you like to try it?” I said, "Of course, that's what I'm interested in." I bought this lens. When I got back to South Africa, the first picture I took with that lens is one of my most famous pictures. Again, this is a really important picture because you can see in the next series I get closer and closer to the subjects. Still lifes become an important part of the picture. Again, that was an important photograph in what I was doing.

Outland by Roger Ballen. Published by Phaidon, 2015.

Then you have pictures like Cat Catcher, iconic picture of the boy holding up the cat with an iron mask around his head. I guess started to deal with the relationships between people and animals in a direct and complex way. People would ask me about my pictures, "What do the people think?" At least in the last ten years, there are many more animals in my photographs than there are people. The last series was on birds. The series I'm doing down is dealing with another animal.

Animals pervade the work. Again, this was the beginning of development with animals on a much larger scale. That was also an important picture.

MM:     How do you think your books have helped to shape your career?

RB:     That's a good question. Books have been the most important thing in my career. All my projects, everything I've done, has been geared toward books. Shows come and go. Articles come and go. I can't read half of them because I don't know the language. The books have always been a crucial thing in my career. From the time I was a young man, I've always worked with books. That's what I'm doing now again. Their crucial to what I've done. The books have a life to them after you've gone. They're there. It's not like something on the internet that disappears. It's physically there so I think books are a crucial part of photography. I'm glad people like yourself keep pushing important, crucial cogs in the wheel.


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