Roger Ballen likes to dig deep. While that is an expression that normally infers a degree of steeliness in facing daunting odds, Ballen’s excavational efforts over the years have followed a physical and a cerebral line.
Ballen is one the main draws at this year’s PHOTO IS:RAEL, International Photography Festival, the sixth edition of which kicks off on Thursday and will run until Saturday, December 1 at the Golf Complex on Pinkhas Rosen St. in Tel Aviv. Each year, under the guidance of founder and artistic director Eyal Landesman and chief curator Maya Anner, the festival follows some core theme. This time round it is relationships, and the program takes in a range of slots that examine the topic from different angles, as well as its relevance in today’s world and the new ways in which it can be represented.
Over the 10 days, members of the public can enjoy lectures, panels, night events, dance slots and concerts, gallery talks, guided tours and a bunch of family-oriented activities. But the festival is more than just a once-a-year event. The PHOTO IS:RAEL website describes ongoing activities designed to promote all sorts of worthy causes, besides furthering the art form itself, through “workshops for professional and amateur photographers, and for the general public, various events that promote artistic and social discourse through the language of photography, volunteer work in various NGOs, educational projects for younger and older students, trips to international photography events and photography competitions.”
PHOTO IS:RAEL activities and events, it further notes, “uphold the values that stand before our eyes at all times – innovation in photography, extensive social activity, and forming international bridges through the language of photography.”
Ballen would, presumably, go along with all of the above. The 68-year-old American-born longtime resident of Johannesburg, South Africa will display his Ghosts and Spirits exhibition which takes a somewhat quirky angle on some of the less-well observed sides of what is generally termed as “the human condition.”
While some of us may struggle to find a clear cut career path, Ballen always knew he’d be spending much of his waking hours snapping away, although it took a while before it became an exclusively professional pursuit.
“I have a PhD in geology. I worked in that field for about 25 years, in Africa,” he explains in a telephone call from Bulgaria, where he was exhibiting some of his creations
before coming over here. ”But at the same time I have been doing photography for about 50 years. I did both professions until about 2005, and then I started putting most of my time into photography.”
Ballen’s breadth of knowledge and expertise is quite amazing, with a degree in psychology also tucked away neatly in his bio and, possibly, also giving him some insight into how to go about portraying his subjects.
The spark for his love of capturing images came from home. “My mother worked for [preeminent photographic collective] Magnum in the Sixties, and she spent time with people like [celebrated French photographer and Magnum co-founder] Henri Cartier-Bresson, and people like that. She opened one of the first photography galleries in America.”
Young Ballen eagerly lapped it all up. “By the time I was 14 or 15, I was immersed in the history of photography. When I graduated from high school, in 1968, my parents gave me a camera, a Nikon. It was one of the first cameras that had a light meter that went through the lens. It was a bulky thing. I immediately started taking pictures.”
And he hasn’t stopped since. His oeuvre stretches across broad domains of imagery and, for several decades now, has tended towards the more artistic aspects of the discipline. But that wasn’t initially the case. That was simply down to history and the evolution of photography.
“In those days there wasn’t an artistic side to photography,” Ballen notes. “As an artist photographer you were really somebody who worked on the streets. There wasn’t really an artist using cameras.”
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with gaining street level experience as you work yourself into your creative craft, and Ballen picked up an abundance of that all over the world. His globetrotting took in a wide variety of geographical locations and cultural baggage, during which he also imbibed a strong sense of what makes Israelis tick.
“I was first in Israel right after the war in ’73,” he recalls. “I spent about five months there. In my Ballenesque book, my retrospective which came out last year, it was the first time I published a lot of the pictures I took in Israel.” Ballen will be signing copies of the said tome during his time at the festival.
He got a decent handle on the ground level state of affairs here, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War which shook the country up following the halcyon days of the post-Six Day War years. “I was on the road, back and forth, all over the country. I really got to know the country well at the time.”
Ballen may have had “to make do” with documenting what he saw, with his eyes, and through the viewfinder, but he always had an artistic bent to his photographic endeavor. “I guess my understanding of art photography came from [pioneering Hungarian-born Jewish photographer André] Kertész, since my mother knew him. I always say it was Kertész who gave me the idea that photography could be an art. I was 18 or 19 years, and I tried to emulate him in many ways, and try to go beyond the documentary way of taking pictures. I wanted to take pictures that reflected my own vision, which didn’t necessarily have cultural or political elements in it.”
Besides learning one’s way around a camera, discovering how to get the best out of lighting conditions, angles, and composition, Ballen believes there is no substitute for getting out there, getting down and dirty, and meeting life head on, in the most corporeal and pan-sensorial manner possible. He has done that, big time.
“After Israel in ’73, I took a boat to Cyprus, and then another boat to Alexandria, then I hitchhiked from Alexandria to Cape Town. I got there in ’74, and spent some time there, and then I went to Turkey and made a trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, over a period of almost two years. I did a lot of traveling over four or five years.”
That long sojourn spawned Ballen’s first book, Boyhood, which depicts young lads at play and checking out the state of their world across Europe, Asia and North America.
It gave him an invaluable sense of what life and universe are all about, at the most basic human level. “I always felt, at the age of 28 when I finished those travels, that I had a fundamental understanding of the human being, of the human condition, of humanity. This is an important thing me, because, at the end of that trip, I felt I had come to some sort of recognition of what rules humanity. So that was an important trip.”
That, he says, is not something you can get through the virtual medium, no matter how far and wide you troll the world of Google-fueled information. “I am 68 now, and when I look back on my life I think, maybe, that trip was the most important thing I ever did.”
As Magnum co-founder and celebrated war photographer Robert Capa once famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” That is sentiment with which Ballen clearly agrees.
“The trouble with most art photography these days is that their experiences are virtual, not physical. They spend too much time looking at phone and computer screens instead of just being out there. There is no substitute for being out there.”
Ballen will be “out there” in Tel Aviv later this week, at PHOTO IS:RAEL, and will be giving a talk about his work there on December 1. For more information about the PHOTO IS:RAEL, International Photography Festival, see https://www.photoisrael.org/.
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