July 11, 2014

Friday Round Up - 11 July, 2014

This week on Friday Round Up an extended interview with Roger Ballen, former UN photographer Martine Perret's new book, Gregg Segal's garbage portraits and Picture of the Week.

Picture of the Week:

Sri Lankan fish vendor(C) Ishara S. Kodikara

Roger Ballen - Asylum of the Birds

“There are infinite possibilities to follow; that is what makes photography so difficult, there is no limit to the possibilities” Roger Ballen 

When ‘Asylum of the Birds’ was released I was eager to review this latest offering from American photographic artist Roger Ballen, who in my view is one of the most boundary-pushing image-makers practicing today. A native New Yorker, Ballen has lived in Johannesburg, South Africa for 15 years. ‘Asylum of the Birds’ builds on his earlier bodies of work that are set in and around the same residence; Boarding House (2009) and Shadow Chamber (2005).

Born into what could be considered New York’s high court of photography – his mother worked at Magnum in the sixties and opened one of the first photographic art galleries in the United States with André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson - Ballen was exposed to photography and photographers at an early age. Yet as a youth his passion was drawing and painting, photography would come later and when it did it would become the heartbeat of his artistic self.

While photography has been at the core of his practice for decades, it wasn’t until Ballen was in his fifties that he left behind his professional life as a geologist and plunged headlong into his art. The bold move paid off and collectors, institutions and galleries worldwide now seek his work, eager for a glimpse into Ballen’s world, for it is wholly his aesthetic.

“My photographs are meant to straddle the strange vague line where illusion become delusion, fact is fiction and the conscious merges with the unconscious,” he says.

‘Asylum of the Birds’ is not an easy work. You can’t flick through this book and scan images. These images demand you stop and not just glance, but take time to look at the story as it unfolds before you. Birds, rats, frogs, dogs and human beings are props in Ballen’s works, elements that come together with the sketches, costumes, masks, drawings, paintings and broken furniture, all found objects that Ballen mixes in his photographic cauldron. In Ballen’s hands these separate pieces form synergies in scenes that defy explanation. And that is exactly his intention.

“My best photographs are the ones that I do not understand,” says Ballen. “These photographs (in Asylum) comment on various aspects of the human condition…my condition. I am not able to be precise about the meaning of any of the photographs in this book”.

“This is Roger Ballen’s aesthetic you are looking at as well as the physical space so it is an aesthetic transformed by Roger Ballen. It is a space that Western society has repressed. In some ways it is part of a primeval space. If you think about mankind, we spent millions of years in caves with animals, with darkness, with water. All these things are part of our archetypal history.”

He continues. “We’ve created science and we’ve built these antiseptic cities and created so much technology around us that we are totally alienated from the natural world. It’s an obvious consequence what we see in the world, it is an obvious reaction to our fundamental insecurities, or it is obvious to me. It won’t stop, because we are dealing with instincts here so this spread of science and technology to defend itself is sublimated in endless complex ways and is part of an instinct”.

In ‘Asylum of the Birds’ the reawakening of Ballen’s passion for painting, which presented itself in 2003, is celebrated in the photographs that also include his own paintings. “Since 2000 my images have been increasingly dominated by drawings, paintings and graffiti, sometime created by one or more inhabitants, by myself or by unknown passersby. It is quite ironic that many of the people that I have worked with on this project have the same style of drawing as me”. 

Ballen’s aesthetic is even more surreal when you consider these photographs are as is, straight out of the camera with only minor tweaking in the darkroom; he still shoots on film with the Rolleiflex he’s used since 1982. There is no post-production, no collage work, no Photoshopping. Each shot is a self-contained artwork featuring found items as well as the human and animal inhabitants of this labyrinthine house that is somewhere in Johannesburg; Ballen has kept the location secret, although he admits those in South Africa have little interest, it is the international media who want him to disclose its location. “You know a magician never reveals his tricks”, he says.

In describing the house he tells me it is like a “Salvation Army place you’d find in Melbourne”. I’m not sure about that, but I understand the correlation; the inhabitants here are largely displaced people, living communally out of necessity. The fact that they live in such numbers, and with such a population of animals – chickens, pigs, dogs, rats and birds – is as Ballen says par for the course in the densely populated areas of South Africa.

I ask him if he goes into each shoot with a preconceived notion of what he is hoping to achieve. “I never have any ideas before I start,” he says matter-of-factly. “The pictures are an evolutionary process. I‘m going to take pictures in a few hours from now and I have no idea and no interest in thinking about what I am going to do. I just go there because this is visual reality I am relating to and a lot of it revolves around the instantaneous, which is what photography is about in so many ways.”

Ballen says this project began to take form, if only in thought, back in the mid-2000s when he took an image of a disoriented dove. ”From this time on birds were no longer confined to the heavens, but to a space dominated by chaos, ambiguity, violence and death,” themes his photographs have conveyed since Shadow Chamber was released in 2005.

“I would say that what you see in the Asylum of the Birds series is a more sophisticated, more personal aesthetic refined in all sorts of ways, but it’s still linked to many similar themes. It is very important to understand that in my mind good photography is about visual concepts and when you start putting too many variable analogies to the work it tends to get lost. I always say the best pictures are the ones you don’t have any words for. And that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to show bad pictures.”

I am curious to know how Ballen has created his images and he generously agrees to walk me through three images - Alter Ego, Liberation and Ritual.

Alter Ego

“There was a man there and underneath his bed was a dead owl. He really didn’t want his picture taken, but he wanted a picture of his owl. So I said okay that’s fine, let’s take a picture on this side of the Shadow Chamber building where there are a lot of drawings on the wall. There are people staying in that room and so I asked some of the people to make some more drawings so in this picture you have at least 10-15 peoples’ drawings in the background. The man didn’t want his face photographed, but there was a paper mask on the floor so we hung that up and then he stood behind the paper mask. Before he did that he grabbed two doves that were flying around the house – and I think a lot of people like the idea of holding animals when you take their picture, they almost feel you are not taking their picture. So he grabbed these birds and went behind this mask and held out his arms. I was watching him carefully and there was a point where he just got a little curious and his head popped out and I took the picture. And it feels like a discontinuity that picture, it feels like his head, his body is behind another body and that is why that picture really works well.”


“One man sitting in there is not alive and the other is. There are birds perched all over the page and when we made the picture somebody stuck the bird in the dead man’s – the mannequin’s chest – I guess out of fun. I was watching the whole event take place and as the bird flew out I took the picture.”


“There is a bathtub in the house, and it is full of ducks and this is where people take baths. The drawings on the wall aren’t mine they are from different people in the house and these people aren’t artists. I don’t think one of them, out of the couple of hundred people who have lived there over the years, have ever been to an art gallery, I could bet a million dollars on that. You are not looking at artists, or people influenced by art, they are people from the street making drawings. So someone said I’m in the bath now so give me the duck and so somebody gave her a duck and we took the picture.”

The collective imagery of Asylum of the Birds evokes an ambience that is edgy, at times menacing, and disturbing. My analytical brain questions each image methodically, while my imagination soars like some of the birds in Ballen’s photographs, not sure where to perch, or for how long to stay.

There is danger here, and intrigue. It is a place where anything can happen.

Ballen has spent years getting to know residents and building trust, but it is an unstable environment to work in and Ballen is not foolhardy. He made friends with the burly building super, an ex-boxer, and that gave him protection. “But you have to watch your stuff and you don’t confront people and you don’t ask the wrong questions, you are just pleasant. I am not a social worker, but I am a veteran at doing this”.

He says often he’ll leave his camera in the car when he first arrives. “You have to have a sixth sense. South Africa is a violent country and if you do things wrong in these types of places then you will be in serious trouble. So you have to be able to understand how to go forward and sometimes you just slow down and don’t do anything and at other times you can go ahead and try to take pictures. It is not a place for everybody and that’s why I never take anybody other than my assistant and sometimes my son, as there are just too many problems”.

Ballen’s body of work has evolved over a long period of time and his articulation rings with the authenticity of a committed artist. “It has been a long process, a lot of hard work, struggle, concentration, a lot of time and money, and a lot of passion,” he says. “All these things have contributed to what I do. I don’t do work for other people, I don’t think about other people. I hope other people are affected in a positive way, but I’m not trying to out guess the market, or figure out what will sell, what will do this or that. I just do it for myself…I am not creating art for commercial purposes. I think the day I do that I will quit”.

While shooting Asylum of the Birds, Ballen and film director Ben Crossman also made a short film, which you can view here.

Asylum of the Birds
Roger Ballen
Published by: Thames & Hudson 
All images (C) Roger Ballen

Book Launch:
Martine Perret - From Above

Photographer Martine Perret is enjoying a sea change. Having finished her tour with the UN in East Timor Perret has settled in Margaret River, amidst the beautiful wine country of Western Australia and tomorrow (12 July) she will launch her new book, "From Above,"which captures the majestic scenery of this region. Here she shares her thoughts on why she's chosen to create this book:

"When you work alone photographing in the field you really have to step back and think clearly about what you are doing and why? Sitting in front of the screen editing my body of work on the region has given me a better understanding as to why I recently chose to live in Margaret River

Before coming to Margaret River I had spent a decade working as a photographer for the United Nations, documenting life in conflict zones such as South Sudan, Timor-Leste, DR Congo, and Burundi.

Even though those years spent in the field with my camera were truly rewarding, the nomadic lifestyle had taken its toll. I needed to drop my suitcase somewhere peaceful, a place where I could sleep and shower safely. I craved the open spaces and rugged natural beauty that had brought me to Australia in the first place, as a 27 year old seeking adventures far from my European homeland.

Margaret River fitted the bill perfectly. And as I was raised in the French city of Bordeaux, it didn't hurt that I could also eat sensational food and drink world-class wine here.

One of the first things I decided to do on my arrival to the region was to get a bird’s eye view, from a helicopter cockpit. As a peacekeeping photographer I had flown almost weekly on UN helicopters on mission to remote places. I remembered there was no better way of getting an understanding of unfamiliar terrain than to see it from above.

What I discovered on my first flight over Margaret River was a stunning landscape of wild coastline, turquoise bays and green slopes, contrasting with the carefully ordered vineyards. It would be the first of many aerial photography trips that formed the basis of this book, and evolved into a true passion project.

This ethereal interweaving of land, sea and sky has shown me that the Margaret River region is as spectacular from above as its lifestyle is below. Perhaps this was my way of seeking out the beauty in life while cleansing myself of some of the darkness I had witnessed. And the more I settle into this special and diverse community I realised it was also my way of saying - I am home." Martine Perret.

12 July Margaret River Gallery
To find out more visit the 34degreessouth website here
All images (C) Martine Perret

Photo Essay:
Gregg Segal - 7 Days of Garbage

This extraordinary series features individuals and families lying in the garbage they've generated over a period of a week. Segal says some of his "sitters" edited their garbage, while others were happy to bear all. As personal refuse escalates so does the pressure on the environment. Stories like Segal's graphically depict the problems we are facing. Just how much stuff do we really need to consume? To see more of Segal's work visit his website here

All images (C) Gregg Segal

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