By BEN SLOAT
In the tradition of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Roger Ballen uses the square format black and white photograph to display the provocative trappings of human theater in heightened environments. Body parts, wire lines, animals, crusty walls enter Ballen’s frame in a seemingly endless progression of organized surreality. Formally, the photographs retain the mark making and texture of drawings with the startle and confrontation of flash photography. Ballen’s subjects are impoverished white South Africans in gritty locations assumed to be native to their conditions.
Born in New York City and trained as a geologist, Ballen received a PhD at U.C. Berkeley and ended up in South Africa in the mid 1970s, working in the mining business. Besides bringing him wealth, mining also introduced Ballen to the rural Outlands of South Africa. Here he became fascinated with the marginalized populations of white South Africans, living during this time of apartheid (the same time that enriched Ballen financially, it must be noted). Ballen’s interest drew him to photograph their experience over many years, culminating in numerous exhibitions, including solo shows at Gagosian Gallery, and several books on the subject published in the last ten years.
Ballen’s success has not been met without great controversy, especially in South Africa. Given the illumination of a largely unseen yet dispossessed population of Afrikaners, questions arose regarding the impact of apartheid on social class, as well as race. On the other hand, critics pointed out the arrival of an American into the country, grown wealthy through the mining of the country’s natural resources then gaining attention through the airing of their dirty laundry.
On top of these questions, perhaps another, pertaining to art, can be raised: Why is poverty such a fetish in the photographic world?
In their respective otherworldly environments, Meatyard, an optician, photographed his children and others wearing masks, interacting outdoors or in abandoned interiors. His subjects always seem to some degree to be at play, the photograph is an invitation to their childlike reverie, however dark it may be. Roger Ballen’s characters, on the other hand, are unhinged and destructive. In the visual theater of their living days, they perform the violence that has been inflicted upon them. The photographs seem like the visual boundaries of their prison cell, a record, a statement, a window into the layers of their exploitation.
“Mark Cohen + Roger Ballen: Chance + Circumstance” is on view March 23 – April 28, 2007 at Robert Klein Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artists and Robert Klein Gallery.