Outland is the culmination of almost twenty years work for artist-photographer Roger Ballen and amounts to one of the most extraordinary photographic documents of the late twentieth century. Beginning by documenting the small 'dorps' or villages of rural South Africa, Ballen's photography moved on in the late 1980s and early 1990s to their inhabitants: isolated rural whites scarred by history, in the process of losing the privileges of apartheid which had provided them livelihoods and sustained their identity for a generation. The results were shocking, both powerful social statements and disturbing psychological studies.
Through the late 1990s and into 2000, Ballen's work has progressed again. Continuing to portray whites on the fringe of South African society, his subjects begin to act. Where previously his pictures, however troubling, fell firmly into the category of documentary photography, his new work moves into the realms of fiction. Ballen's characters act out dark and discomforting tableaux, providing images which are exciting and disturbing in equal measure. One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.
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You have never seen photographs like these before--black-and-white images of people who seem damaged and defective, yet oddly sympathetic, posed in ways that suggest the pitiless workings of heredity and environment. Using a shallow, stagelike space, Roger Ballen gets in close to his subjects--men, women, and children living in remote parts of South Africa.
A woman in a soiled dress shouts at a man whose back is turned--or at the barking dog rearing over his shoulder. A plump fellow in a security guard's uniform stares, wide-eyed, at the camera while one of his meaty hands pins a tiny puppy against the wall. On a patch of raked dirt, a sleeping baby in underpants lies across the intersection of two mysterious tangled lengths of string.
These photographs pose blacks and whites together in ways that suggest enigmatic playfulness or wordless acceptance. In one image, a white woman, blind in one eye, with a face like a rotten apple, wraps her arms around two pug dogs. Next to her, a black woman in a smock stands patiently. Above them, large portraits of children (where are they now?) hang on the dirty wall. It is a scene of care and neglect, loss and resignation.
Ballen's current work occupies an odd niche between documentary and staged photography. The sitters are real people, seemingly in their own environments, and the photographer dignifies them by using their proper names in the captions. But he poses them with live and inanimate objects--a fish, a hammer, a broken baby carriage--in ways that heighten the tension and ambivalence of their situations. Even electrical wire strung on the wall creates a nervous force field. It's as if Diane Arbus and Robert Frank had joined forces with a master of German expressionist theater. --Cathy CurtisAbout the Author:
Roger Ballen (b.1950) has lived and worked in Johannesburg, South Africa, for 30 years. Born in New York, he worked as a geologist and mining consultant before starting his own photographic career by documenting the small villages of rural South Africa and their isolated inhabitants. His images are both powerful social statements and disturbing psychological explorations. He is also the author of Shadow Chamber and Boarding House, both published by Phaidon.Peter Weiermair is an art historian and curator. He was formerly Director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Germany, the Rupertinum Museum in Salzburg, Austria and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy. Peter Weiermair is Director of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy.
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