Born only in the late 19th century, photography is still a very interesting art form. Not only does it lend itself beautifully to being reproduced, losing none of its freshness through the published product, but it comes with a delicious sense of controversy. As an art medium, it is still viewed with suspicion and as a poorer relative to the more established high-art disciplines. This may be because, unlike painting or drawing, the presence of the photographic artist, his or her ideological standpoint, and the contrivance of the image itself remains veiled in a seemingly seamless assertion of “Truth.”
A photographer using South African imagery makes the potential for these kinds of prejudice even richer. South Africa has a history and a presence that many photographers have found and continue to find deeply evocative. Its socio-political and natural machinations, contradictions and upheavals have lent themselves well to photojournalism, documentary and art photography from the time of British colonialism.
In 1982, when in his early thirties, Manhattan-born Roger Ballen settled in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was then still deeply under apartheid rule. The son of a New York picture editor, he was raised surrounded by a sophisticated sense of the aesthetic. Educated as a geologist, he began photographing the different layers of society in the small villages and towns of predominantly white South Africa and published his first book of photographs in 1978. Outland is Ballen’s fifth photographic essay and represents a level of aesthetic, thematic and contextual development which surpasses the former four, and in different ways.
In Outland Ballen steps into the breach between photojournalism and constructed art. His new works disturb because what they take from the idiosyncrasies of local Poor White culture, they give to the sense of fictional possibility, leaving an odd sense of dignity in their protagonists. But the constructed fictions are not straightforward. They flirt with the surreal. This liberates the viewer from social restraints, allowing him/her to boldly view the ugliness of poverty, the pathos of retardation, the primitiveness of cruelty within the almost sanctified auspices of a gallery context.
South African public find this type of gesture morally reprehensible and show their feelings not only in press criticism but with their pockets. A throwback to apartheid rule, deep-veined conservatism determines how many South Africans still see photography as a form of journalism, and something objective and patently unmanipulatable at that. Consequently, to date, few Ballen works have been sold in South Africa to local buyers.
Outland is a small-format “coffee table” book. Understated and elegant in design, it comprises images that speak volumes, but only a single page of introductory text, written by Peter Weiermair, Director of the Rupertinum Museum in Salzburg, Austria. Rather than confronting its reader with text, this publication plays the role of a gallery environment. Traditionally on an opening night, the visitor enters the space to see work on display. S/he may not choose to inspect its empirical data but rather be consumed by the contrasts and the structures of the work itself. Once the visitor has become “acclimated” to the kind of works on display, a speaker introduces the show. Armed with the insights brought to the fore by the speaker, the visitor continues his or her perusal of the works. Thus the introduction is placed toward the middle of the book. The pages before it comprise a selection of pieces made by Ballen between 1983 and 1994, which come from his *Dorps* and *Platteland* series, respectively.
These images are haunting: frozen between documentary and constructed narratives, they represent the crude realities of the inhabitants of white South Africa who fell through the economics of the system of apartheid. Broadly illiterate, they suffered from the social stigma and numbing reality of extreme poverty and were outsiders in many ways. The Poor White class distinction is an interesting one in which the idiosyncrasies of a sub-community are retained. There is characteristic décor in the homes photographed - the environments are neither clean nor beautiful, but priorities are attributed to kitsch adornments, cheap not only in value, but also in implication. The unwashed, the enthusiastically, embarrassingly keen, the pathetically heroic are the focus of these initial images. But sometimes these human values reach beyond expectations, and a subject may jump onto her bed to pose in as best a way as she thinks necessary; a subject may drool in anticipation or eagerness to comply with the photographer’s expectations.
Ultimately one cannot ignore the moral problematics of these images by a photographer who has enjoyed the privilege of choice with regard to profession, vocation and creative livelihood, who seeks out people who have not. But neither this apparent chasm in values nor the historical or empirical data surrounding the subjects of the work is dealt with in the introduction or elsewhere. “Ballen is no social documentarian, no voyeur of poverty and ugliness,” writes Weiermair, “he observes his fellow players in the human comedy rather like a painter . . . awed and fascinated by the human body in whatever form it appears.”
This encapsulates and perhaps answers the social problems that the works may engender. Had Ballen been a painter, a filmmaker, a performance artist, his works would have easily been accepted with their fictional surreal narratives. One of the values of Weiermair’s introduction at this point in the text is explanatory. Another, in keeping with the gallery metaphor, is an invitation to the visitor leave his/her prejudices and preconceived notions about photographic art at the turn of the page and move on without them, exploring the recent works with an eye as void of taught ways of seeing as possible. The recent works further develop the metaphor of narrative, as they extrapolate on conceptual possibilities. Flirting at times with the abstract, these unbeautiful, dirty bodies become like still lives, reduced to formal elements and visual relationships.
There are many themes underlying this book, uniting the images, and grouping them in different ways. Weiermair writes of the photographed animals, the sense of installation, the presence of the theatrical. The images are evocative and shocking, less because of the socio-economic circumstances of their sitters than the grotesque sense of mystery, insanity, hilarity that hinges them together. Often the compositions are confusing, complicated. They don’t seem logical as photographs, and the viewer is often left without anything substantial to work with, as these cannot be the “Truth.” Accordingly, the viewer is forced to reconsider the works and their medium as art.
The challenge is intellectual but also emotional. Not only are the images powerfully constructed, they are made with consummate skill, as is the entire publication. Focus is sharp, blacks are black, whites are white and the tonal range between them is rich. The people in these images have been captured so beautifully that we the viewers can visualize much more than we see. We know how the texture of the skin would feel. We can cast our mind’s eye to imagine the smell that would characterize a particular kind of environment. We would be able to recognize the voices of these people or the kind of things they would say. These special powers are given us by Ballen’s skill in creating these images. He confounds us: they’re real and not real. They’re fictional and yet they are people who stood thus, smiling crazily, holding tiny puppies or enormous pigs, people who interacted with the photographer, and by some magic gesture and the alchemy that happens when light-sensitive paper is exposed to an image, people who discomfitingly seem to be in our very presence as we gaze at them.
This is a fine publication, indicative of the wealth of possibility in South African fine-art photography, and the talents of Roger Ballen, who continues to push his medium and challenge his audiences.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/outland/