Roger Balland

What's on: Roger Balland, “Outland”

Gagosian Gallery

It seems that Larry Gagosian has got serious about photography: his uptown gallery is mounting its first ever exclusive exhibition of the medium (10 January-16 February), the US debut of Roger Ballen, whose work is better known in Europe. Director of photography at Gagosian is Rick Wester, who joined the gallery last summer, straight from Christie’s photography department, and worked on the Ballen exhibition. Born in New York, Ballen has been living and taking photographs in South Africa since 1974, mainly in Johannesburg’s outlying areas. He trained as a geologist, and it shows: the faces of his human subjects—hardscrabble, marginal denizens of this region—resemble craggy landscapes. Gagosian is showing Ballen’s photographs from the mid-1980s to today: his series of unpeopled interiors, his “Platteland” portraits, and recent semi-staged scenes. Many were in his book, Outland (also the title of his museum exhibition in Salzburg), while others have never been published, and are exhibited for the first time. Most compelling are the recent pictures. At once grim and amusing, these are tableaux vivants in which the players engage in odd activities, the result of interaction between photographer and subject (above, “Handy man”, 1996). Juggling documentary and directorial impulses, Ballen comes up with a minimalist, formally rigorous depiction of hardknocks reality. The meticulously composed black and white photographs have a calming resolution, due to their perfectly square format. There is a bit of Walker Evans here, a bit of Diane Arbus, a photographic Surrealism. His work also seems a cousin of Richard Billingham’s, though less thrown-off: it is unclear to what extent his subjects are acting for the camera, to what extent just being their unusual selves.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 121 January 2002