When I began this blog at the start of this past rainy season, one of my first posts was on Deerhoof. I think have finally found the equivalent to Deerhoof in the photographic world: Roger Ballen. Both make work that is ingenius, formally advanced, and that at its heart is totally inscrutable. Note that by inscrutable I don't necessarily mean subtle. Stephen Shore, for example, is subtle.
There are all sorts of things going on in this photo that aren't immediately evident, that take a while to sort through, and maybe after some time with the photo one comes away with a changed understanding of it. That's subtle.
Roger Ballen on the other hand is inscrutable.
Let's see, there's some primitive markings, a chicken, dirty legs, uh huh, hmm. You could spend a while looking at this photo before arriving at pretty much the same point you started which is, "What the fuck?..."
The thing is, I think Roger Ballen is fine with that reaction. After hearing him lecture a few nights ago in Portland, my understanding of him is roughly as thin as before. "Not every question has an answer," he said. "The world has mysteries and that is fine." This was one of many vaguely prophetic pronouncements made through the night while Ballen paced head-down in small circles under a spotlight. Watching him was like visiting some strange photographic oracle. Ballen spent much of his early life underground in mines. There was a lot of time to think down there, and not much space to do it in. So now any time he visits the earth's surface he takes advantage and does a lot of thinking --in this case out loud-- and pacing. The effect was more slo-mo poetry slam than commanding expository. Watching him I couldn't help wondering to myself WTF? But in a good way.
Ballen showed slides from Shadow Chamber, his most recent book. While walking home one day he'd stumbled on a building and realized immediately he had to go inside and make photographs. And lucky he did because the thing was 3 floors full of freaks of all ages including schoolkids, along with an assortment of various barn animals and wall markings, which he proceeded to photograph regularly for two years until one day the building was gone. And that work became Shadow Chamber. WTF?
What do his photos mean? In his lecture Ballen seemed to go out of his way to avoid projecting meaning into his work. He described his photography very much in terms of how it was made. A photo like this
might be described by Ballen as a cat watching a rabbit near some springs and metal shapes which the rabbit thought he could hide behind, and Ballen happened to be walking by that door as this occured. When an audience member asked how active a participant he was in setting up the photos he played coy, "Well maybe I placed the rabbit in the corner and maybe I didn't, I really can't remember," but he said it in such an absentminded fashion that one realized that he was right, that it wasn't really important what had happened, that only the photo was important.
Perhaps one reason Ballen prefers to talk about his work in concrete terms is that he is a complete master of that world. Compositionally the guy can really put together a photo. Repeating shapes, patterned tones, just the right amount of random elements in random places, and a lot of things that look like they shouldn't belong yet somehow do...Ballen juggles all of them before inserting them precisely into his photos. That he uses live models and animals, two types of compositional actors which can throw a frame out of whack in a heartbeat, is quite amazing. Throughout the evening Ballen made several references to hidden forms in his photographs, pointing out the relationship between say a hanging wire and a jawline, as if that were the most important thing in his work.
Still, one can't help wondering what it all means. The ideas in his photographs didn't just appear. They were created by him, presumably in an effort to express some message. I have no clue what that might be but his photos are nonetheless quite powerful. After his lecture I walked out of the hall under the glow of a pleasant photo buzz, wondering calmly WTF?