I was late to the party for HBO's The Wire, and didn't get around to seeing it until last summer. So of course now I like to talk about it all the time. It's kind of the opposite of discovering a band before everyone else. When you're behind the curve, there's a perverse kind of pride.
It's the same with Roger Ballen's work. I'd heard his name a lot in the last couple of years, but never saw more than a small jpeg here or there until I picked up the book today. Wow. I get it. Everyone's talking about this guy for a reason. His work is transcendently good, and mashes up so many different strands of photo history.
But this article is not about Ballen's genius, it's about the new monograph of his work, Roger Ballen: Photographs 1969-2009. Well, it's fantastic, lyrical and disturbing. The plates are gorgeously printed, with a terrific use of grayscale and a sharpness that speaks well of his lens quality. The pictures start out firmly within a humanistic documentary tradition, slowly edge past crime-scene style reality narratives, and end up in an assemblage, sculptural studio-style. Everything is black and white. The evolution feels natural, and his vision remains consistently precise and primal throughout. Animals, razor wire, children and mentally challenged South Africans recur.
Really, this book is a keeper. It's meant for all lovers of great photography and art, with the sole exception of those with weak stomachs. I have to include that qualifier, if for no other reason than it's an important way to talk about the work. It's tough stuff, but the best often is. I found myself thinking a few times, while page-turning, that it was almost a shame to try to codify my thoughts for this review, as the work is the kind of mysterious amalgam of images that tends to defy the need for words at all. (Essays included.) It's a magnificent book of pictures, and I look forward to returning to it for years to come.
Jonathan Blaustein is a photographer and writer based in Taos, NM. His work resides in several major museum collections and has been exhibited widely in the United States. For more information, please visit www.jonathanblaustein.com.