The semi-imaginary setting for the latest set of seductive, hallucinatory, nightmarish black-and-white photographs by Roger Ballen is called Boarding House. Rather than a tranquil oasis of temporary comfort for transient people, however, it seems more like a squalid squat inhabited by strange, deranged, desperate, destitute drifters, abandoned children and animals, and ghoulish creeps who are hiding out or on the run.

This Boarding House could be the last stop in a bad dream. The doors from scary rooms lead only to other rooms that seem even worse. The rooms are filled with broken down remnants of furniture, tools, toys and mysterious objects. The walls, often broken, peeling or crumbling, are covered with old newspapers, torn sheets, rotting wall paper, and numerous crude scribbles and markings. All of this forms a catalog of signs and symbols from the collective unconscious — intriguing, disturbing, puzzling and demanding to be read with deliberation.

The photographs that make up Boarding House are more complex, crowded and multi-layered than most of the previous work by Ballen. But, as in all of his photographs, the quality of the prints is near-perfect in the richness and deepness of dark blacks and subtle nuances of smudges and shadows. Each photograph stands on its own, rewarding the careful reader with continual surprises (Is that an eyeball staring out from behind a tiny rip in that animal skin?).

In an exclusive interview for Lens Culture, Ballen talks about this new work, and defends what many people see as his dark vision of humanity.

 Ballen says:

Ultimately what you see here is a combination of my imagination and the physicality of a real place. And photography is different from painting in this case, because you have to deal with light bouncing off physical objects onto film or digital media. As Diane Arbus said, a picture is always better or worse.

I’m in the last generation to grow up in a black and white world of photography. What people often don’t understand about this kind of photography is that it’s not as simple as making an installation and photographing it. It’s not documentation. The photographic image transforms what is in front of the lens. I’m trying to make something that sticks. I’m not doing this through drawing or painting. I’m doing it through photography, black and white photography. It wouldn’t work without photography.

A good picture has the same qualities as something that is living. It can completely stand on its own and answer its own questions and has its own life. I think that’s one definition of good work -- it has its own life, it becomes alive.


You can listen to more of our conversation with Roger Ballen in this 6-minute audio interview.

 — Jim Casper





Roger Ballen: Boarding House
Hardcover: 128 pages
28 x 30 cm
Publisher: Phaidon
ISBN 9780714849522
Buy on Amazon