Originally born and raised in New York City, Roger Ballen has lived in South Africa since receiving his Ph.D. in Mineral Economics in 1981. Initially his work as a geologist took him to the country’s rural communities. Fascinated by the uncertain and precarious conditions he found, he began photographing people in small towns at the margins of society. Ballen documented these residents through a series of unsettling portraits that reveal the human condition even as his subjects exhibit idiosyncratic manners and habits.
Recognizing the potential for psychological tension in the emotional responses evoked by his images, Ballen shifted away from a traditional social documentary approach. In the 1990s he began introducing unexpected elements into the setting of his portraits, juxtaposing his subjects with animals, broken furnishings, discarded objects, wires, and wall drawings to create surreal images that are simultaneously real and fictional. The resulting photographs suggest narrative tableaux drawn from a theater of the absurd to produce disturbing scenarios.
Increasingly, Ballen’s images exploit the shallow space between a constructed backdrop and the camera in a way that is immediate and confrontational. However, the overall effect is less aggressive than intimate and challenging. Formally, these photographs eliminate the distinction between background and foreground, organizing what appears to be a chaotic jumble of parts—human, animal, and inanimate—into an abstract field of psychological associations. In them viewers encounter their own assumptions about reality and the existential enigma of the human condition.
This installation offers a select group of the artist’s iconic photographs presented in conjunction with his participation in the annual Palm Springs Photography Festival for 2013.
This exhibition is organized by Palm Springs Art Museum.