Monday, January 28, 2008

Roger Ballen @ AGWA (Perth, Australia)

A few years ago a documentary ran on Australian TV about Shelby Lee Adams and his Appalachian photographs. At the time it troubled me - as with the work of Arbus, Witkin, Mark and others - in that it 'felt' exploitive. This even with his obvious long-term commitment and love for his subjects.

There is a very fine line between social concern, documentation, manipulation and potential false contextualisation of images/texts. Added to these issues, there is the idea that just because the 'other' is different it doesn't mean they shouldn't have the right to be seen and/or heard.

The imbalance comes in context and misreadings rather than content. Like all other forms of media, we project our own values and prejudices on to images. We are often more guilty than the photographer... a classic example is an image of a man in almost all forms of interaction with a child.

The following is not The True Meaning of Pictures (incidently by the same director of Manufactured Landscapes) but gives a small insight into Shelby's relationship with his subjects.

With that in mind and after some procrastination we went and saw Roger Ballen's show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. As with Shelby, he caused a (very large) stir when his images of rural South Africa were first released.

After spending quite a while touring the show, I must admit to coming away with mixed feelings.

Some images are stunning - in particular Twirling Wires (2001) - and genuinely moving. The strength of geometry, texture, tone and - most importantly - printing is striking.

The simple work was the most effective. They allowed easy access and empathy.

The heavily manipulative images on the other hand felt clumsy. It was hard to pin down exactly what caused the discomfort but it was likely the obvious nature of the manipulation.

I had read about the ambuigity in his images but found that only in the symbols. I could easily empathise with the procrastinators but found them detached from their signs. That said, some images 'worked' on many levels.

I guess they reminded me in some ways of surrealism and the inherent psychological manipulation of symbolism. I, as many others, am guilty of the same but too obscure is annoying rather than enlightening.

On a whole I enjoyed the show - enough to buy the book - so maybe I'm being over critical. That which moved me ultimately overwhelmed that which didn't.

The show runs until May 4. There will be an Artist Talk held at the gallery on April 6 @ 11am as part of FotoFreo.

As a side note to the above, this image (another of my favourites from the show) is a classical example of how artworks often don't translate well to the web. The original print of this is almost completely black with extremely subtle tones and textures. The white stubble glows and his eyes are exquisite. The web representation doesn't even come close to doing the image justice.

Many other images on his website are similarily flat. I would suggest a sighting of one his books to get a better feel for the work should you not be able to see it in person.

Visit some of his work on the website.

See also:
FotoFreo Part 01
More FotoFreo
Jodi Bieber @ Moores

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