On the dark side

On the dark side

A new exhibit documents the work of photographer Roger Ballen.

Published: November 7, 2012 (Issue # 1734)


Roger Ballen speaking at the opening of ‘Shadow Land’ on Oct. 31.

A new exhibit at the Rosphoto State Museum and Exhibition Centre for Photography offers those with an interest in photography a long-awaited chance to see the work of internationally-acclaimed photographer Roger Ballen in Russia.

The retrospective exhibit, titled Shadow Land, is the first major exhibit in Russia of work by Ballen, who is known for his strange, psychological and oddly beautiful pictures, many of which have been exhibited in galleries around the world.

The retrospective presented at Rosphoto covers a long period of his work and allows visitors to witness the evolution of his style. It should be mentioned that the principal feature of his work that has remained constant over the years is his use solely of black and white film. “My pictures are not separated from the fact they are black and white. I like black and white because it is a very minimalist, very reduced and at the same time very abstract art form. Besides, I am a part of the generation that grew up using black and white film,” says Ballen.

The photographer was born in New York in 1950, but for over thirty years he has lived and worked in South Africa. His early pictures from 1982 to 1994 partly continue the tradition of documentary photography through the depiction of political, social and cultural aspects of the South Africa of that time. In those days Ballen was chiefly influenced by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. On the contrary, his current work has no clear influences, appearing to be simply a series of artistic, aesthetic statements that make no claim to portray anything particular about South Africa. Since 2002, Ballen has even replaced portraits of people with drawings, sculptures, paintings and installations that he transformed into a particular photographic reality through the camera.

So the title of the exhibit, Shadow Land, not only refers to the photographer’s black and white style and shadows as his ways of achieving a certain visual effect, but it also seems to express both themes of his art: On the one hand, the darkness of life in South Africa; on the other, the shadowy side of the mind.


The exhibit features some of Ballen’s more recent installation work.

“We cannot understand happiness without understanding corresponding emotions such as sadness. There is an existential happiness, which is a deeper emotion than the one governed by ordinary temporary experiences,” says Ballen. Taken from this point of view, the darkness of his work is not as frightening as it might seem, functioning as an essential aspect of our understanding of light, as well as a part of our complex subconscious.

However, his pictures have many visual meanings and sometimes these meanings are contradictory in nature. Men, animals and objects do not function according to viewers’ rational expectations in his photos, which defy precise interpretation. Ballen’s surrealistic and complex aesthetic world is both the fruit of his imagination and a set of universal symbols and ideas strongly affecting other people. An archetype realized in an image is regarded by the artist as being an important aspect of photography, addressed mainly to viewers’ subconscious. For example, the bird, symbolizing transcendence, purity and godlikeness in many cultures, will be a central theme of Ballen’s next book. Some photographs from this project are currently on show at Rosphoto.

This exhibition covers three decades of work, from his early series, Dorps (1986) and the highly charged series Platteland (1994), Outland (2001), Shadow Chamber (2005) and Boarding House (2009) through to unseen new work from the Asylum series.

Besides his photographs, visitors have a chance to see his recent collaborations with filmmaker Saskia Vredeveld and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord, for whom he directed the video for their song “I Fink U Freeky.”

“Shadow Land: Photographs by Roger Ballen 1983-2011” runs through Dec. 19 at Rosphoto, 35 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 314 1214. M. Admiralteiskaya. www.rosphoto.org

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