Roger Ballen will tell you, his is the last of a great generation, one of photographers who capture the world in black-and-white, on a vintage thing called film. He’s proud of this, rightly so; it’s an art form in which he knows his tool—his Rolleiflex 24 x 24 cam- era—like a painter knows his brushes, a writer his pen. Though not often criticized, his work has been described in many ways, one of the most popular of which may be “dark.” But, as he explained to me, that darkness is a form of light, the brightness of which is wholly dependent on one’s own self-inspection. Ballen harbors great respect for the self, and whether it was his intent or not, after our conversation, I was left with more than recorded words; it was the first time I’ve ever interviewed another person and come away damn sure it was somehow about me.
Art Nouveau: What continues to attract you to black- and-white film photography over digital?
Roger Ballen: I can’t really separate the formal quali- ties in my work from the fact that I use film and the fact that I use black-and-white. Black and white is an inseparable aspect of what I’m doing. It’s like the skin on your hand, [it’s] inseparable from your hand. I don’t even consider wanting to use color, because it’s so foreign to the format that I’ve developed over these years… a lot of what you see in those pictures is synonymous with the fact that I use black-and-white and film.
AN: You were born and raised in America, to a mother who was a photo editor of Magnum, so your early milieu was photography, which explains your talent. But did you ever feel obligated to pursue photography in mass media, either fashion or journalism?
RB: Photography has always been a form of personal expres- sion for me… it’s a special occupation that I’m involved in, separate from the world around me. I do photography only for myself; I certainly don’t feel I can get the same gratification doing this on a regular basis. [Commercial photography] has never really appealed to me.
AN: Speaking of occupation, how did you wind up as a geologist in your early career?
RB: I was always interested in working outside and in nature, so geology fit the criteria.
AN: I guess geology inevitably led you to a career in photography?
RB: Not really, I’d been doing photography since I was about fifteen years old. I only started working full-time as a geolo- gist when I was about thirty-two; I already had a book and had been in photography for about sixteen years. What I did do at that time, in 1982, was work on my geology in the South African countryside, and as I worked I completed my first two books on South Africa, Dorps and Platteland. During this period, I was able to earn a living in geology, and, at the same time, I went from place to place working on those two projects from 1982 to ’94. It’s also were people sometimes get mixed up: beginning in 1994, I stopped going to the coun- tryside, and since [then] all my photographs have been in Johannesburg.
AN: There are many similarities between mines and minds, metaphorically and literally; are all the similarities dark?
RB: Well, first of all, I think that depends on how you define dark. For people like myself, that dark is a form of light; dark is essentially exuberance. Dark can be a sense of self-satisfac- tion and self-fulfillment by discovering the dark and finding the light in the dark. I don’t really believe that the way most people define dark is a simple one. I think for most people, when they say the pictures might have a dark side they’re re- ally referring to the side of themselves that they haven’t been able to confront, a side of themselves they’re scared to work with.
AN: Your abstract metaphor and your keenness for psy-chology is enthralling, and you incorporate that entirely into your work. Do you think that with all the abstractions that you set up and shoot there is a natural quality in it?
RB: Again, this would go back to the definition of what’s natural and what’s abstract. I think if you wanted to define the pictures in a more exact way, you’d define them as imaginary realism. So, there’s an aspect of abstract in the pictures, and there’s an aspect of something very concrete. At the same time, the pictures have strange drawings, surrealistic environment, abstract lines, and complex meaning.
AN: Your latest work is very heavy with motifs, like body parts and language, animals, abstract reflections, and quite often with striking overtones of morality.
RB: I’m quite certain about that. I think that is an issue we all deal with on a regular basis. It’s quite an interesting fact that so little contemporary art deals directly with it.
AN: Your tableaux sets are so elaborate; do you consider yourself a set designer perhaps as much as a photographer?
RB: No, I’m first a photographer—then perhaps an artist who’s been able to integrate aspects of drawing, sculpture, painting, and other art forms through photography. So, I would say I am first and foremost a photographer, first and foremost an artist, not a set designer in any way. I work with people and I create installations that exist in the space that I work in, but ultimately I transform those environments through photography into an image that has deeper meaning.
AN: Can you tell me a little bit about your current project?
RB: The current project is on birds. It’s dealing with birds in a strange, surrealistic, complex environment that we’ve been working on for four or five years now. This place is inhabited by various people from all walks of life, and each person that works in this environment—both the house and the space that these people are living in with the animals—have sort of allowed the people and the animals to live together. Primarily, the space that I’ve been working on
is inundated by flying birds. It’s quite an interesting experience to photo- graph the birds and the people, the birds and the other animals, and the other animals and the people in this particular place in Johannesburg.
AN: So the area in which you’re shooting is fairly chaotic as your taking these pictures?
RB: Very chaotic, very chaotic, [but] through the chaos I’m able to come up with meaning. And photograph- ing the chaos allows me to contribute to the environment that allows me to create interesting images. In the chaos I find the order.
AN: I’d like to turn back to South Africa. You were brought there through your work as a geologist…
RB: I got there in 1974 when I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town. I found it quite interesting; what defines South Africa perhaps more than anything else is the interaction between the First and Third World, [it’s] a First World country and a Third World country. It creates some interesting experiences.
AN: You have a foundation there in your name [The Roger Ballen Foundation].
RB: The purpose of the foundation that I have in South Africa is to increase the awareness of contemporary photography and photography in general as a form of expression, and to educate the South African public to the various aesthetic sides of photo- graph. It’s important to the people of South Africa to give talks and lectures and to show their work over the last few years. Those are the types of things we’re committed to. It’s going very well. You know, nothing like this is going to happen overnight. It’s hard to imagine how it’s going because you can’t get inside people’s heads, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I think it’s making a contribution to people’s lives.