SPAO: Some existential questions with the photographer Roger Ballen

Roly Poly (1972) by Roger Ballen.

Ottawa’s School of the Photographic Arts is hosting an exhibition of work by the American-born, South African resident photographer Roger Ballen in its gallery on Pamilla Street in Little Italy. The show opens Friday evening with a reception starting at 6 p.m. and it runs until Sept. 23. Ballen is known for his use of black and white film and his exploration of human consciousness. He spoke about his work with ARTSFILE from his home in Johannesburg. Ballen grew up in Westchester County outside New York City. His father was an attorney. His mother, Adrienne, was a member of the Magnum agency from 1963 to 1967. She also opened a photography gallery in 1968.

Q. How did photography start for you?

A. The main crux of the matter is that when I grew up there were all these books in the house and photographs in the house. My mother was passionate about photography. I remember when I graduated from high school in 1968 my parents gave me a Nikon and I really developed an affinity for the camera. In 1968-9, at 18 and 19 years old, I was capable of taking quite good pictures. And I guess I found my identity in the camera more than in any other way.

Q. You started with photographs of Vietnam War protesters?

A. In those days, photographers spent their time on the street photographing events. Most of them had political connotations (such as) civil rights or  something to do with Vietnam, or the counterculture. If you look back at the history of photography in America that’s what most of the major photographers were doing in the 1960s, other than those involved in fashion for example.

Q. What changed?

A. My mother was fond of (the photographer) André Kertész and I could see that he was an artist. He was not into political photography. He was trying to transform reality through his camera. He took great photographs in the 1920s and ’30s in Paris. For me he produced some of the best pictures ever taken in photography. They are artistic expressions. This was a major period of artistic expression in Paris with, surrealism and Dadaism and other things going on at the time.

The photographers living there were really influenced by the scene then. There were real artists working as photographers then, not just people saying it because it sounded cool. I immediately identified with that. I was also taking some pajnting classes and that influenced me.

The problem today is that everything is “art” and that means nothing is art. The word doesn’t mean anything any more. The only thing that I can say the word means is personal expression. It doesn’t deal with quality or depth, it’s just expression.

I see the sun setting and take a picture, that’s expression, you can call that art, but really what is it?

Five Hands (2006) by Roger Ballen.

Q. Is that the result of the availability of smart phones and other technologies?

A. You look at the amount of people now taking pictures because of digitalization. On any given day today, if you compared now to 40 years ago you probably have a million more pictures taken. Forty years ago you had to know about film, how to use a camera, you had to know something about processing and printing. If you didn’t know anything then, your pictures would turn out lousy.

Q. If you were 23 today, would you be a photographer”

A. It’s an impossible question. It’s like saying if my mother hadn’t been my mother. It’s innate; it’s like brushing my teeth. I continually do it. I love being in photography. It’s dominated my life. This has been an evolution over 50 years.

In last nine months I have done colour pictures for the first time. I never did that before. This has been a major jump in my aesthetic. I was using film and I believe in the inherent aesthetic of film and was (locked into) black and white film. About a year and a half ago made a video for my latest book (Ballenesque: Roger Ballen: A Retrospective, Thames and Hudson.) And that started me on colour.

Q. Why did you move to South Africa?

A. There were two or three things that happened. In 1974, I left America and did this five year trip around the world. One of the parts of that trip was a overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town.

South Africa was an interesting country at time. There were relationships between colonialism, western culture, African culture and apartheid, but  most important, after the five year trip I did a PhD in exploration geology. And I met my future wife. We got married in 1981.

Also I was quite estranged from America. I wasn’t identifying with the culture very well. I felt restless being there. I came back to South Africa in 1982 and I have been in Johannesburg since then.

Puppy Between Feet (1999) by Roger Ballen.

Q. Why geology?

A. I have been involved with a lot of minerals over the years. I don’t do it much any more. I worked all over Africa. I had my own business. All those things have had some sort of metaphoric value to me. Geology is a science but there is a poetry and a metaphoric value to it and I think some of those qualities have ended up in my photos.

Q. Why stay in South Africa?

A. Every place has its pluses and minuses. The main thing is (that wherever you are) that you are involved in something meaningful to yourself. What’s the point in moving? The older you get, you see that wherever you go, you see a lot of similar problems. The key thing is that if you can find some meaning in what you are doing, then you are lucky.

Some 36 years later, I am still here. I travel a lot; I have exhibitions all over the planet. I see myself as an international person.

I think everybody has to find their own creative tension. Mine came from my own existential questions such as Who am I? I try to use the camera to piecemeal some of these questions together. I don’t pretend I have any answers.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.