Review: Roger Ballen at Alonso Garcés Galería

Roger Ballen
Alonso Garcés Galería
Bogotá, Distrito Especial, Colombia
May 2 2015 – June 15 2015

Roger Ballen has 25 photographs from his projects "Outland," "Boarding House," "Shadow Chamber" and "Asylum of the Birds" at Alonso Garcés as part of Fotográfica Bogotá, a biannual photography event being held now.

The work spans all of his projects created since 1997, when he stopped creating more traditional documentary projects and began to work more with studio portraiture and psychologically charged, manufactured imagery.

The show successfully pulls together images from four projects. If anything, it shows how the various bodies of work that make up Ballen's non-documentary practice complement each other, and could be seen potentially as a single project.

Installation is noteworthy in that it's professional and clean, not always the case unfortunately in exhibitions in Colombia.

The show doesn't try to present a theme or argument, providing instead photographs culled from the last few decades as an introduction to Ballen's work. I think that opens the opportunity for a review that also focuses on Ballen's photography more broadly.

First, for those that have never had the opportunity to see Ballen's prints, he is a great printer. They are outstanding as objects, the tones slightly flat. He compresses them towards the darker end of the spectrum, which allows the occasional brighter tones to sing when he strays just outside the reduced spectrum. Darkness, however, never comes at the expense of detail.

Formally, Ballen is a talented draughtsman. He draws with line as well as any photographer, creating echoes of his subjects with wires and cables in many of his most successful images. This sense of line is brought into the actual settings of his images where he and his subjects physically draw on the spaces themselves which Ballen then photographs. He clearly delineates and separates objects and has an incredible organizational sense for composition, making images that seem almost easy, hiding the sophisticated subtleties of balance and counterpoint he employs.

Moving on from here, however, I need to make a disclaimer. Ballen is one of my least favorite contemporary photographers. My reasons echo issues others have already expressed about his work, which I'll mention shortly, and pile on a few more. Now is as good a time as any to try to explain why.

In terms of formal vocabulary, Ballen borrows fairly heavily from Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a little bit as well from Pablo Picasso's proto-Cubist African period and its antecedents, African masks and the art of prehistoric cultures. With Meatyard, there's a direct relationship between the black and white medium format images, composed with vertical and horizontal lines of grotesque figures often wearing masks. We see Basquiat's scribbles and linearity, and occasionally his density of line. Picasso's combination of pushed and pulled human form combined with his use of African masks and "primitive" sourcing has fingerprints all over Ballen's work.

Ballen is aware of these references; he grew up around photography and art. His mother began working as an editor at Magnum when Ballen was 13. He is not, as Sean O'Hagan suggests, an outsider artist, despite being self-taught.

While there is transcendence of these sources at times, overall Ballen largely recycles borrowed elements. It usually doesn't feel like he's quoting and advancing a visual dialogue, the photographs actually look old, as if they could have been made in the 50s or 60s. He's a high Modernist in a world that explored his visual language half a century ago, and I don't see him pushing that conversation forwards.

Before addressing the much-debated topic of the subjects he works with, let's look at the specifics of Ballen's iconography. Rats. Snakes. Crosses. Cockroaches. 666 scrawled on a wall. Dead cats, dead rabbits, dead birds. Fake blood. The middle finger. More rats. Skeletons. A guy pointing a gun to his head. A sample of images from the Outland video directed by Ben Jay Crossman, produced by Ballen, are above, and contain a range of iconography similar to what can also be found in Ballen's still photography. The video clearly aims to ape Ballen's photo aesthetic.

Pulling out this list of elements in Ballen's photographs and video pieces, I hope you can see why I find Ballen campy, the producer of B-movie stills with a set of props borrowed from a Boy Scout's haunted house. If I asked a 16-year-old metalhead in the back row of math class what he'd want to carve into his desk the most, all that cool stuff I just listed is his answer. I find Ballen's visual language often so expected in terms of trying to generate the grotesque or shock, that it has the opposite effect: humor. I find many of his photographs almost funny in their deadpan serious employment of stock shlock horror movie props.

Now let's get into the controversy around the subjects Ballen works with. He has been questioned about and/or implicitly accused of exploitation of his mentally and physically challenged subjects here, here, and here for starters.

Let me start by defending Ballen. Off the top of my head, photographs potentially offensive per se in today's heightened era of attention to the social and power dynamics around the making of images include those of young kids, the poor, the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, naked women by men, people from races other than our own, especially Blacks by whites, especially Black men by white men, subcultures by those that are not part of them, the homeless, people on the subway, people from the "developing world" taken by people from the "developed world," people doing things that are stereotypical of their demographic like Asians photographing or overweight people drinking a huge soda with a hot dog in their other hand, etc.

Cat Catcher, 1998 © Roger Ballen

To ascribe certain relationships between photographer and subject as ethically restricted without attention to the individual case, however, carries risks that one could argue match or go beyond the risks associated by photographing across power and social dynamic lines. Those risks include patronizing the subject of a photograph by removing their agency and power to make decisions for themselves (who are in most cases adults), the assumption of knowledge about the personal connection to and the real world treatment of subjects by photographers, the visual debt we accumulate by prohibiting types of images, the cultural risk of self-censorship and the stigmatization of the field of photographing communities other than our own, one of the richest veins in photographic history, from Robert Frank's The Americans to Doug DuBois' My Last Day at Seventeen and Wayne Lawrence's Taking Back Detroit.

We know photographs lie; judging the subject-photographer relationship based on how a photograph appears to us is a path of folly (unless there is outright murder, abuse or rape happening in the images that documents a real action). "My critics have no idea about the reality of what I do or of the relationship I have with my subjects. The fact is I have a deep relationship with these people. I would go as far as to say, without wanting to exaggerate, that they love me," Ballen says. Two subjects say just that in the "Outland" video.

So be it, honestly it's not our job to judge his relationship to his subjects. And yet I find Ballen's use of his subjects problematic nonetheless. After Ballen gave a video lecture at Fotográfica Bogotá, I went out for drinks with attendees of the event and got into a healthy argument about why. Let me lay out my reasoning here. 

Head Below Wires © Roger Ballen, 1999

When Ballen was questioned about why he worked within this particular community by an audience member in Bogotá, Ballen gave his stock answer, one you can find in almost all interviews with him: his photography is only about him. It's not about his subjects, it's an exploration of his own psychology. "At the end of the day, everything is just Roger Ballen," he said to the questioner in Bogotá. On the homepage of his site, he similarly states, "My purpose in taking photographs over the past forty years has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been fundamentally a psychological and existential journey."

Yet to reveal his own subconscious, he uses props and a set that emphasize the distress of his subjects. It's actually the sets or stages that Ballen - with help from his subjects - creates and the interaction between subject, stage and props that I find problematic about his work, not so much the use of the subjects themselves. That is to say, it is not his relationship with and use of his subjects, but their representation in two-dimensions that is the issue.

Go back to that list of his iconography above. Think about the meaning of placing a person in a precarious mental state and extremely poor, often in an exaggerated pose that underlines their formal disparities from the norm, amid those elements. 

We end up with "crazy people" amplified by crazy scribblings, trash, dirty mattresses and blood, connections emphasized by the placement of his subjects among animals living and dead and sets filled with the "primitive." He places neon fingers that point to their insanity, to their "base instincts" and to their living conditions, ones that we associate with animals more than humans. These images feed off the animality of their subjects. He produces something of a lampoon of the way he portrays his real mentally and physically challenged subjects by casting Ninja and Yolandi Visser of Die Antwoord for the parts of "Insane #1" and "Insane #2" in his much vaunted video for the criminally contagious "I Fink You Freeky."

Video still from "I Fink You Freeky"

As a test, what do you remember about the individuality of the subjects in Ballen's photographs? Can you differentiate their personalities? Who are they beyond their illness, their disability? We don't know. They are insanity, they are disability. They are one-dimensional stock characters. Humanity has been squeezed from the equation, reducing the already marginalized subjects to nothing more than form, simple signifiers, objects on a stage for Ballen to show how crrrrrrrrazy!!!! he feels.

As an aside, my interlocutor in Bogotá argued that humans as form stretches through much photography, Cartier-Bresson and Salgado were his two examples. My reply is that the language of a portrait, Ballen's genre, asserts a different set of conversational parameters than street photography or environmental portraiture. Street photography, as practiced by many, has devolved into a boring game of finding formal connections while you walk around. Fine. Portraiture, however, especially studio portraiture, which Ballen's work basically is, as currently practiced and as based in hundreds of years of history, still generally tries to invoke something more about the subject beyond simply "form." Different games, different rules.

Brian with Pet Pig, 1999 © Roger Ballen

All of this is the inverse of Diane Arbus looking to find a human connection with people on the margins of society that could reflect the alienation she also felt in respect to the dominant culture. This is the dehumanization of others to reflect your own psychological dark corners. 

The dehumanization of the mentally ill and their equation with the sub-human (animals) are dangerous and dangerously common tropes. While judging the real world subject-photographer relationship is a path of folly, it is part of our jobs as photographers and those dedicated to photography in other ways to discuss the subjects as they appear in the photographs themselves and the relationship of the photographs to historical and theoretical conversations. We are here to address the representational modes a photographer chooses to employ for his or her subject-photographer relationship, to criticize the portrayal of subjects and their presentation in a public forum. This is where our job as critics begins.

Roger Ballen sharing Roger Ballen sharing an article on Roger Ballen in the Flak Photo
Network. Here Ballen promotes an article on how he feared for his life photographing 
"criminals and drug addicts" which seems more than a little revealing about why he 
makes these images of subjects that he claims love him when questioned imore 
critical contexts.

I've conveniently glided around the rich and loaded history of conversations on "the gaze," "voyeurism" and "the other" and related lines of discourse that we have developed around photographing people that Ballen's images should be considered through, in part because those ideas are fairly well-known, and also because at some point you have to avoid the rabbit hole of potential topics opened up by a critique. I would like just to point to their importance in developing a full critique of Ballen.

One perhaps lesser-known idea to mention in relation to Ballen's work is Martin Buber's discernment of difference between the "encounter" one feels in front of another human being (I-thou) and the "experience" one feels in front of an object (I-it). In Ballen's work there is, for me, a very disquieting sensation, a third type of engagement, something like an encounter that is becoming experience, a sense of humanity in transition to object/animal. I recognize the human form, but, empty of dimension, rendered as simply form and surrounded by the particular settings they are photographed within, they start to immediately slide to experience, a perception of the non-human.

To conclude, despite his Facebook post above, I don't doubt that Ballen is connected to and quite deeply involved with his subjects and I am convinced he has made a committed attempt to connect with them. I don't find his work exploitative, actually. If he wants to make these images, so be it. I'm not here to decide what his personal relation to his subjects is and there's nothing morally wrong going on in the pictures or in the making of them.

While we should make the photographs we need to make, what we choose to share and how we share them is a separate question. By taking the step of publishing his work, obviously, Ballen places his images within a system of existent dialogues and understandings of imagery, within an ethics of representation.

Within those conversations, I find Ballen's work deeply flawed. While visually Ballen's work is of a high level, it has its albatross: he plainly emphasizes his search for ways to show his internal mental state at the expense of the representation of his subjects, ignoring issues created by the visual debasing of humans who are vulnerable, stigmatized and in deep need on many levels. He does so through derivative forms and puerile iconography, with sets and props that purposefully amplify the sense of inhumanity of his very human subjects, thereby restating harmful tropes about the socially marginalized, mentally ill, disabled and poor.

The issues are compounded by Ballen's refusal to respond himself more directly to the conversations around his work, as opposed to Sally Mann, for example. This, for me, is a blatant shirking of part of the responsibility of being an artist. A photographer can't simply deny the history of images or the presence of the historical and theoretical conversational matrix of photography into which they place their work. There are long standing arguments about representation and these conversations are how we understand and communicate. Those understandings and communications create communities that speak a common language, and any community develops a sense of ethics in short time. A photographer has to understand how those ethics operate when they create within their borders.

Yet repeatedly questioned on this, Ballen gives us back nothing, with a (paraphrased), "Welp, I've done this for 50 years, and it's all really about me, folks." A disappointing evasion of the opportunity to reflect on his own work from someone whose work calls out for dialogue.