Ballen’s photographs are beautiful because of the richness of light, the abundance of textures, the surreal archetypal imagery and dream-like juxtapositions. They are complex pictures, exquisitely composed, printed to near-perfection — and almost always they hold some tension that lingers long after the first gaze.
The work is disturbing to me because it usually depicts some variation of social-psychological-mental squalor and physical abandonment and disrepair. His photos bring up the same kind of queasy (but oddly pleasing) feeling I get when I see actors on a desolate stage-set in a play by Samuel Beckett. The human and animal players in his scenes seem lost, confused, dumbfounded, and stuck in some perverse reality. The action feels private and primitive. Ballen’s use of bright flash lighting heightens the sense of voyeurism or exposé that we have come to love in the work of Weegee and Diane Arbus.
The images are obviously staged, but they are troubling in their brutal raw reality. Ballen uses recurring themes and props: wire, shadows, dirty feet, soiled bed sheets, filthy walls, boxes with rough holes cut out, crude drawings cover many surfaces. Junk is piled on junk. People and animals are in awkward, dangerous and absurd positions.
It would be easier to swallow if we could think of the characters as models or actors, following stage directions. But very many of these images seem too real. The characters look like they are really strung out on the far edges of ordinary life.
Ballen has been accused of exploitation, coercion, manipulation and other bad things. He has also been praised as one of the best photographer-artists of our day.
When he was in Paris last November, he agreed to meet me for coffee early one morning to talk about his work. I recorded our conversation, and have edited the best bits into a great 18-minute audio interview. (We were talking in a noisy cafe, so sometimes the clatter of plates and the noise of other people's conversations intrudes into the recording.)
The interview touches on many topics, including how he found his “voice” as a photographer, his working methods and philosophy, why he uses flash lighting, the violence of nature in South Africa where he lives, the similarities between geology and photography (he holds a Ph.D. in Mineral Economics), and what he is striving for in his art.
Lens Culture is also delighted to be able to show 25 of Ballen's recent photographs, some of which have not been published before.
Listen to this great audio interview while enjoying the full-screen slideshow of these 25 images.
Ballen is very open and generous in our interview. At the end he says, “Do we live in a world of order or chaos? That’s a pretty important question to deal with.”
— Jim Casper