Transforming minds with the macabre

Photographer Roger Ballen, whose work includes Eugene On The Phone (2000, above).
Photographer Roger Ballen, whose work includes Eugene On The Phone (2000, above).PHOTO: ROGER BALLEN
Photographer Roger Ballen (above), whose work includes Eugene On The Phone (2000).
Photographer Roger Ballen (above), whose work includes Eugene On The Phone (2000).PHOTO: MARGUERITE ROSSOUW

American photographer Roger Ballen, whose finely detailed, macabre tableaux vivants capture human beings in varying states of animalism, composes his photographs based on instinct.

"I don't plan my photographs. I go somewhere and figure out what to do. It just comes naturally to me, till I reach a crescendo and everything works," the 66-year-old tells The Straits Times, while in town for a talk he is giving as part of the Singapore International Photography Festival.

To demonstrate his point, he takes his glass of water and, instead of drinking it, places it on an empty chair and on the ground. "You won't know how this looks in a certain position until you move it around," he says.

But he emphasises that he marries this laissez-faire approach with hard work to achieve his desired result.

  • VIEW IT / ROGER BALLEN'S MENAGERIE

  • WHERE: 03-21, Block 9 Gillman Barracks, 9 Lock Road

    WHEN: Sept 20 to Oct 16, 11am to 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am to 6pm (Sunday), closed on Monday and public holiday

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.sipf.sg

"I go step by step. My photos are like paintings - sometimes, it takes 1,000 strokes, 1,000 decisions.

"I'm able to conceive them as I've been doing this for so long. I have a very photographically imaginative mind," he says.

The award-winning Ballen has gained fame in the photography world for his unique style that meshes high art and photography. He has also exhibited in countries such as China, Argentina and Israel. His upcoming exhibition at Gillman Barracks this month is his first in Singapore.

Tall and imposing with a piercing gaze, he speaks eloquently of how his works are meant to be "highly psychological".

He says: "My works make conversation with the psyche of my viewers. They get into their heads and inner minds, and transform them."

Indeed, his works are, as he describes, a melange of "art brut (outsider art), surrealism and documentary" movements.

The photos he has curated for his exhibition here, titled Menagerie, are in that morbid, yet evocative vein. They juxtapose humans, or sometimes disembodied body parts, with animals such as snakes and birds, set against gritty, layered backgrounds.

"It's about the relation between the animal and human psyche and how the two interact. My photos are a window into that relationship," he says.

"The point of the exhibition is to know Roger Ballen... because it's all up here," he says, pointing to his forehead. "You can look at a painting and understand the way that Picasso did it, but you can't draw and paint like him. In the same way, no one can take pictures like me."

The New York native was first exposed to photography in his teens, as his mother was an editor at the prestigious photography agency Magnum. He chose to treat it as a hobby as "I didn't want to make a career out of something I enjoyed doing".

He published his first photography book Boyhood in 1979, a collection of snapshots from a round-the-world trip he made, which included a stopover in Singapore.

Since then, his oeuvre has evolved over time, from stark, documentary-style portraiture in the early years, till now, when it tends towards abstraction, encompassing forms such as drawings, paintings and installations.

One of his earliest works is Dorps, a series that captures the aesthetic of the rural towns in South Africa, where he found work as a professional geologist and mining entrepreneur in the 1980s.

Ballen, who is still based in Johannesburg, is married to visual artist Lynda Ballen, 65, and the couple have a pair of twins, Amanda and Paul, both 27.

He admits he does not do much outside of work - he works for six days a week, about 12 hours a day. He is now working on a couple of installations to be displayed in museums as well as photographic projects.

"I'm at a stage where my work keeps growing and I learn every day from what I'm doing. There's no end to it. It only stops when I have no more imagination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Transforming minds with the macabre'. Print Edition | Subscribe