In critiques of Roger Ballen‘s photography I haven’t seen more than mere passing references to Abu Ghraib. New York Art Beat coyly described Ballen’s prints as “Reminiscent of the images from Abu Ghraib” and continued, “Untitled (1069) shows a gaunt man clad only in sweatpants. His head hangs down, toes curled and fingers scraping the wall.”
Culture Vulture afforded Ballen just one sentence in its review of the After Nature group exhibition, “Roger Ballen’s b/w photos draw on our deep visual memories of Abu Ghraib, without truly recording any torture.”
In real time and the real world Ballen’s work has absolutely nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. But my charge is to speculate on the meandering visual cultures and cross overs that wash over us daily.
Let me start by saying that Ballen has not in any way been influenced by Abu Ghraib. He began his Shadow Chamber work in 2001 and continued for 6 more years. His visual vocabulary was drawn from his own portfolio and observations from as early as the 70s when he photographed in homes of the poor with exposed wires, smears and semi-feral mammals.
New York Photo Festival will have to be special in 2009 if it is to eclipse Ballen’s show-stealing lecture of last years inaugural show. Just as Ballen had quietly plied his craft for decades without much commercial interest, so he quietly took to the stage for the unrockstar 11am slot on the first morning. Many concluded at midday that they may as well go home there and then. Ballen was it; “So if you missed it sorry the festival might just be all down hill after this.”
Why? Apart from being unexpected, Ballen took the viewer deep into a closely controlled isolated world and into the psychological uncertainties of his vision. Ballen is the perfect foil to typologies, minimalist cliche, first-project enthusiasm and the manicured fine art of contemporary photography.
Effigy and Prowling are disconcerting, bizarre, staged and lit with hard flash – in other words they hold the same characteristics as the Abu Ghraib images.
It seems the comparison is so glaring no-one has wanted to state it! Is it with guilt we accept Ballen’s work into an art aesthetic, and then stand with repulsed incertitude before the Abu Ghraib images? Much has been made of Ballen’s hypnotic work and his vortex of image and dis-logic. I wouldn’t suggest he is a mystic seer, but if some sort of visual, global Zeitgeist exists, I would suggest that Ballen tapped it. Few commentators have readily acknowledged this visual convergence. Why? Strange forces.
We have argued the ethics and presence of torture in non-photographic media, but have we failed to satisfactorily take up issues surrounding the aesthetics of torture in photography?
Maybe all the visual culture theorists were worn out and distracted after the publication of the Abu Ghraib images; maybe I am writing this a year or two too late; maybe visual similarities aren’t enough for a water tight hypothesis? But, you must admit the smudging and blurring of faces is further provocation toward comparison and spinal shudders.
There are some amazing resources online for Roger Ballen. The indubitable Lens Culture has a 25 image gallery and 18 minute audio interview.
Heather Morton compares his Ballen’s with Ralph Meatyard, Joel Peter-Witkin and Tim Roda.
Colin Pantall does the best blogosphere survey of Ballen’s aphorisms, antics and work.
Hot Shoe has a solid review of the Shadow Chamber book.
The V&A offers three very short audio snippets by Ballen.