By JM Colberg
It has become fairly customary to talk about an artist’s work using criteria or facts that have little, if anything, to do with it. In general, the more well-known an artist is, the higher the likelihood there will be talk of his personality or public persona, of his artistic background, or of anything else that these days is being employed to, let’s face it, sell work. While it’s completely understandable that artists will employ all kinds of means to make sure their work gets seen and sells, the critic’s role cannot, actually must not be to buy into that. The only thing that matters is, or at least should be the work in question.
Needless to say, critics focusing on just the work find themselves not only in the minority these days, they’re also fighting a losing battle in a day and age where by means of so-called social media the focus is more on an artist’s persona or on her or his entertainment value than on whether the work in question is any good. It’s tough to withstand the PR blitz, especially also given the fact that contemporary photography operates in its very own filter bubbles – much like the rest of the world. The critic’s role must be to at least try to break through those bubbles, however Don Quixote such efforts might end up being.
Roger Ballen’s Outland is now being available in a second, expanded edition. It’s a body of work that sits closer to the beginning of the artist’s continuum of photographs than his more recent work – not just in terms of the time when it was made, but also in terms of what it shows, how the photographer employs his artifice. It would be somewhat tempting to judge the work using everything that came after it in mind. But much like a photo needs to be discussed based on its actual content (and nothing else), so does a body of work.
As a photographer, Ballen is one of those rare examples that actually isn’t served well through comparisons with other artists. Of course, connections can be made with those that came before him. One of the essays in the book attempts to establish ties to Diane Arbus (it seems once you photograph portraits that are a bit unsettling that’s the go-to reference). While Arbus generated a photographic universe of her own, so did Ballen, and whatever overlap there is teaches us less about the work than those vast areas where there is none. Joel-Peter Witkin might be another reference. But again, we would only learn so much by trying to make that connection.
I’m not sure I would want to argue that Ballen is sui generis. No artist is. But he is less of, let’s say, a planet orbiting around some star than its own star, albeit one that finds itself in a sparsely populated area. Ballen is first and foremost Ballen.
So what kind of photographer is Roger Ballen? What are we to make of this work?
For a start, the photographs in Outland hover somewhere between looking documentary (or of a documentary style) and anything but. There is a theatricality, an artifice to them that, however, manages to restrain itself at least somewhat (the same cannot be said about the photographer’s more recent work, which for this very reason does not possess the same power at all). These photographs could have been found, but they could have also been set up completely. It’s not clear from the pictures, and it also really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because here, we are presented with a world where the rules we take for granted don’t quite apply any longer.
Contrast this with Arbus’ work, just to bring back that reference, where we got a photographer who fears that we all share one world and who is trying her hardest to rebel against that. Ballen doesn’t rebel against anything. His world simply is his world, take it or leave it. Of course, many of his subjects come across as being “freaks” (to use the term so frequently employed in discussions of Arbus’ photographs). But they’re mostly that not because of who they are, but what they do. Arbus’ photographic universe makes no sense without the opposition into which it places itself concerning the world we are familiar with. Ballen’s, in contrast, doesn’t need any such opposition. It operates on its own.
(So if we really want to use those kinds of reference games, maybe we should discuss Arbus as a somewhat ineffective and one-dimensional variant of the vastly more complex Ballen.)
Outland might be the ideal Ballen universe, given it finds itself at the sweet spot between the documentary and the constructed. The tension between those poles is hard to break. Whenever there is a picture that looks more “found” (offering some sort of comfort), there is another one that looks a lot more constructed (offering a very different kind of comfort). Ultimately, it’s a most believable portrait of a strange unsettling world, where there certainly is terror, which is easy to understand, but also love, a love that we can’t quite comprehend, but that we still realize as such.
Outland also is the standard against which all of the artist’s other bodies of work have to be measured. Never before and – so far – never after did Ballen manage to strike the balance between the different types of artifice employed in such a successful way as here. It’s a book with many brilliant pictures, one of those bodies of work that deserve a more prominent role both in the libraries of those interested in photography, but also in the kinds of discussions critics, theorists, and writers are having about the medium.
There is one thing that really irks me about this second edition. I do appreciate seeing many of the previously unpublished images. But most of the pairings of photographs had me to the point of despair, given their simplicity. In many such pairings, the viewer is basically presented the same picture, not literally, but in terms of what is being shown. I’m genuinely puzzled by why there are those pairings.
That aside, the second edition of Outland delivers pretty much everything one would want from it. Highly recommended.
Outland; photographs by Roger Ballen; essays by Peter Weiermair, Elisabeth Sussman; 156 pages; Phaidon; 2015
Rating: Photography 5, Book Concept 3, Edit 2, Production 5 – Overall 4.1
(ratings explained here)