A key photographer of his generation, Roger Ballen continues to shoot exclusively in black and white film, believing that unlike colour photographs, this minimalist art form ‘does not pretend to mimic the world in a manner similar to the way the human eye might perceive. Black and white is essentially an abstract way to interpret and transform what one might refer to as reality.’ Born in 1950 in New York City, Ballen studied psychology at the University of California, and completed his PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Relocating to South Africa to work as a geologist, he began documenting his new environment of small mining towns, and their inhabitants.
Ballen’s powerful images are psychologically engaging. His earlier documentary focus evolved into elaborately constructed compositions with their cast of objects, animals, bodies and limbs. Ballen’s crude line drawings, compositional mastery and ability to capture the most undomesticated side of his human subjects, incite discomfort; not so much for the residents of his strange worlds whose metaphysical and emotive qualities are evoked, but for us, the viewer. Ballen’s more recent works adopt a formal language that is not immediately associated with photography. His engagement with a more painterly and sculptural aesthetic blurs the line between art and documentary, unhinging the viewer’s sense of reality.
Since the 1980s Ballen has been exhibiting internationally and several books of his work have been published, namely Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House, and Asylum of the Birds. 2015 saw the publication of The House Project, and Theatre of the Mind was published in 2016 on the occasion of Ballen’s exhibition at Sydney College of the Arts. Ballen’s work is represented in the notable collections of Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate, London, UK; Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA; Museum Folkswang, Essen, Germany; Centre Georges Pompidou, and Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, France. Late in 2013 the Smithsonian African Art Museum in Washington D.C. held a large retrospective of his work titled Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen.
Ballen collaborated with South African hiphop duo Die Antwoord on the music video for their 2012 song ‘I Fink You Freaky’. Ballen’s distinctive artistic language is animated in the cinematic rendering of his work. The video won the award for Best Music Video at the 20th anniversary event of the Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland, 2013. This is the second major award for the video that in 2012 won the Music Video Grand Prix at the Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival in Portugal. The video has now reached over 59 million views on YouTube, catapulting Ballen’s work to new levels of international recognition.
Ballen lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.