Review by Gerhard Clausing •
One person’s nightmare is another person’s reality. Sometimes the two realms are connected in mysterious ways. Roger Ballen is certainly the great master of showing us the seemingly absurd that impinges on the everyday, and here we have another, even more complex journey into Ballen’s universe. This time there is a notable added component: poetic writing in Italian and English by Gabriele Tinti. I have never seen as strong a connection between the visual and the verbal arts as is evident in this extraordinary book.
This project contains four sections: In this house, at night, it is best to hide / It’s like being in front of a mirror, isn’t it? / If there is anything left to look at, look here / … the earth will come to laugh and feast. Each of these themes is embedded in further verbal complexities before you are confronted with the visuals and their poems. Another way to describe these sections might be that they represent encounters with roles and figures, unique portrayals, and the challenges within surroundings and contexts, especially self-deception and the inconsistencies of expectations and the dishing out of fateful events.
A total of 63 images from Ballen’s work between the years 1995 and 2017, a period of 23 years, are included. On the left, each double page presents the poetic texts written in response to the images, while the photographs are always on the right. There is an index of titles and years taken at the end of the book. The images are mostly in square format, as we are accustomed to from most of Ballen’s work. Occasionally we have horizontals or verticals, which add extra tension. As always, all the photographs are in black and white, so that we pay attention to figure, form, composition, and light and shadows, and we can supply our own emotional overtones to the images. They are beautifully printed on generously-sized pages.
Ballen and Tinti have a vision that encompasses a wide spectrum of what impinges upon us – things that are not so neat and tidy, stuff that can creep up on us in our dreams and nightmares. The contexts for many of the figures in the images are indicative of the parts of life that are not so predictable – moments that we might have done differently if we could do them over again, odd experiences that repeat themselves or haunt us, things we dread that might happen in the future but that we have shoved out of our consciousness. Figures, animals, recreated body parts, drawings and scribblings, and many objects abound in the photographed scenarios. Toil and trouble everywhere, and our task might be to make some sense of it if possible.
Take, for instance, the image of the man lying on his bed, shown on pages 84-85 below. His head is inside a box that looks a bit like a puppet theater or a very old television set with a more circular screen. This could represent a stage set, or the man’s predicament, from which he would like to escape, to end the loneliness of his outsider existence. If he could only escape from that box, perhaps he could more easily communicate with the rest of the world and become an insider. And then again, maybe the box gives him a certain kind of safety or protection, at least in his mind, and he might like to remain secluded. This world of puppetry and theater is set up by Ballen and responded to by Tinti, and the idea is to trigger responses on our part through such a conflicted individual figure.
Ambiguity is created through animate and inanimate ingredients; our assignment is to figure out who or what is alive and kicking, and how things might proceed. In other images masks and other paraphernalia are used to sow confusion and to have us contemplate what life is all about. Areas to think about are many: relationships, loss or illness, belief systems, decay, corruption, delusions, especially delusions of grandeur, violence, and many more.
The interview section is called “Colliding, transforming, reflecting: the poet and the artist.” It gives special insights into the background and intent of each of the two authors. Ballen characterizes the intention of his photographs as “creating metaphors and revealing archetypes.” As Tinti says, “Roger Ballen’s photos, my words, are a kind of defense against the terrible power of death. They are an accumulation of enthusiasm, injuries, obsessions. They are effigies composed to disturb the reader, to ambush the thought, the things.” These two certainly were well matched for this collaboration. It might be a good thing to be disturbed in order to find more productive ways of dealing with reality.
We have the impression that this material wants us to delve into the nether realms of our unconscious to probe how to deal with what the world presents to us in our conscious moments. Elegies, prayers, laments accompany the images. As we have a look at other people’s predicaments and ways of confronting life, we might find out something about ourselves as well. I have spent many hours contemplating the images and words in this book, and find it a very enlightening process. The world has come a long way since A.D. Coleman published The Grotesque in Photography in 1977, but our lives are still filled with many mysteries and absurdities, and this book might help us assess some of that chaos and unpredictability.
The PhotoBook Journal also reviewed these other books by Roger Ballen:
Gabriele Tinti & Roger Ballen – The Earth Will Come to Laugh and Feast
Poet: Gabriele Tinti (born in Jesi, Italy; lives in Italy)
Photographer: Roger Ballen (born in New York City; lives in Johannesburg, South Africa)
Publisher: powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, NY; © 2020
Texts: Poetry by Gabriele Tinti; interview with both authors by Louise Salter
Languages: English and Italian
Hardback; fabric cover with tipped-in image, stitched binding; 160 pages, paginated; 10.75 x 11.25 inches (27.5 x 28.5 cm); printed in China by Asia Pacific Offset, Ltd.; ISBN: 978-1-57687-948-1
Photobook Designers: Robert Avellan and Francesca Richer
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).