A casual passerby catching a glimpse at a Roger Ballen photograph would be excused if they were to assume the picture was made by a madman. This perception defines the vision and definition of Ballen’s oeuvre, consisting of tableaux that combine theatricality, primitive wall drawings, and dark, strange and surrealist overtones that perform as windows into a troubled and snarling soul.
It’s not a stretch to consider Ballen an outsider photographer, forging his own unique path through the potentials of the medium. However, he also works within a rich lineage of photographers who venture into territories of horror, surrealism, and the grotesque. It’s a space occupied historically by photographers such as Eugene Meatyard, Joel Peter Witkin, Les Krims, Arthur Tress, Asger Carlsen, Allen A Dutton, Diane Arbus, and others whose pictures cut into the areas of the human psyche that typically hide in the shadows. In A.D. Coleman’s 1977 book, The Grotesque in Photography, the critic breaks down the work of such photographers as a revolutionary developing trend akin to impressionism, largely according to the emphasis of grotesque photographers to pursue constructed imagery and unrealities that held disturbing subject matter as their centerpieces.
When moving from picture to picture in Ballen’s latest book, The Earth will Come to Laugh and Feast, one gets the sensation of touring an asylum, peering into padded rooms, each containing its own cacophony of crude drawings, odd symbolisms, and unsettling gesturing of human form. In an interview accompanying the book, the South African photographer states that he takes photographs “to better understand who the person called Roger Ballen is…”. Within the psychological horrors of his pictures, he seems honest and sincere, willing to show a side of his psyche that most other photographers wouldn’t dare to hint at.
The Earth Will Come to Laugh and Feast isn’t only an expose of Ballen’s latest work however. It is a collaboration with Italian poet Gabriele Tinti, who has previously written poems to accompany a similarly provocative photographer and artist in Andres Serrano. Tinti writes a short poem in response to each of Ballen’s images. His brief verses both interpret and re-contextualize the photographs, providing words that give permission for irrational visions such as dead animals and arcane behaviors to exert themselves freely. Tinti brings Ballen back from the brink of a certain madness and establishes a pathway of rationalization into the dark ambiguities of the imagery.The visualization of the unconscious that defines Roger Ballen’s practice is conducted with a brutal nakedness that has marked the artist as among the most original photograph-makers we may ever encounter. With The Earth Will Come to Laugh and Feast as just the latest product of his nearly five decade-long career, the consistency of his personal literature attests to the earnestness and commitment to purging these pictures from his psyche. And the underlying themes of fear, mortality, and an acceptance of the uncanny may be testaments to a worldview that our lived experiences, so often perceived on the surfaces of our physical world, are layered over deep, deep wells of things that we’ll never understand about ourselves.