artnet Asks: Photographer and Geologist Roger Ballen

Get ready to be spooked by his strange stylistic hand.

Roger Ballen, Recluse (2002) Silver Gelatin Photograph 16.5 x 16 in. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Fahey/Klein Gallery.
Roger Ballen Photo: courtesy of gosee.us

Roger Ballen
Photo courtesy of gosee.us

Born in America in 1950, and educated in geology and psychology, photographer Richard Ballen has lived and worked in South Africa since the 1970s. His photographic work there has evolved from the documentation of rural villages into choreographed fiction. Despite his shift in interest, his work is united by his spooky and strange stylistic hand, where limbs are presented without their corresponding bodies, birds are a regular feature flitting through the frame, and eerily marred walls are a constant backdrop. His controversial photographs have been published in several book volumes, including Shadow Chamber, Outland, and Boarding House. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I have been passionate about photography since I was 15 years old. In 1997, during the time I worked on the book Outland, I remember filling out an entrance form at passport control in Johannesburg stating that I was an artist rather than a photographer.

Roger Ballen, One Arm Goose

Roger Ballen, One Arm Goose (2003)
Gelatin silver print, 31.5 x 31.5 in.
Photo courtesy of the artist and Galería Senda.

What inspires you?
I am ultimately inspired by nature. Nevertheless, I do not work from inspiration, rather from discipline, hard work, and, most of all, a passion for black and white photography.

Roger Ballen, Recluse (2002) Silver Gelatin Photograph 16.5 x 16 in. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Fahey/Klein Gallery.

Roger Ballen, Recluse (2002)
Gelatin silver print, 16.5 x 16 in.
Photo courtesy of the artist and Fahey/Klein Gallery.

If you could own any work of modern or contemporary art, what would it be?
This is an impossible question to answer; it is like asking me which is my favorite photograph. Sometimes, I find objects in markets in Africa that have a greater impact on my consciousness than the work I come across in contemporary art museums.

Roger Ballen, Twirling Wires

Roger Ballen, Twirling Wires (2001)
Photo courtesy of the artist and Hamburg Kennedy Photographs.

What are you working on at the moment?
I recently published a new photographic book with Thames and Hudson titled Asylum of the Birds. At this time, I am working with Phaidon Press on a revised edition of my well known book Outland, which will be published in March 2015.

When not making art, what do you like to do? 
I enjoy walking, swimming, and diving. In addition, I have been a professional geologist for nearly 30 years, and am passionate about this profession.


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