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Ballenesque: Roger Ballen's Signature Aesthetic Across Five Decades Photography

Photographer Roger Ballen's signature style, which has come to be known as the "Bellenesque" aesthetic, didn't develop overnight. In fact, it took five decades of trial and error to fully mature into what we see today.

Roger Ballen, one of the most collected photographers alive, has indeed achieved something few photographers today are able to master — an instantly recognizable visual identity. If you know Ballen's work, you would be able to spot one of his photographs from across the room. Why is this so important? Well, there are few reasons, but chief among them is the ability to have your work be unique. This may sound simple enough, or perhaps unimportant, but in a world where photography is democratizing faster than any political entity, the need to stand apart is critical. Even with this qualification, Ballen was less than enthusiastic about one's ability to rise above all the digital noise. 

Leopard Lady, 2019. (c) Roger Ballen

As a consequence of technological developments, and partly due to Facebook and Instagram, the power of the single image has diminished. One has to accept the fact that photography has reached a point of total over saturation and this trend is likely to continue at an exponential rate.

Mimicry, 2005. (c) Roger Ballen

Ballen is right, the pace at which photography is growing on the internet is staggering. Over 350 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook every day. That's more than one photo for every man, woman, and child in the United States, each day! Although Instagram surprisingly lags behind Facebook in the sheer number of images posted, it has its own set of challenges, namely, how to distinguish oneself enough to garner a following. This is no easy feat. However, creating work that is uniquely your own with a strong and recognizable visual signature is a very good beginning. Ballen proves that this will take work and commitment. 

My style has developed over five decades of taking photographs, step by step, layer by layer. It is through taking photographs that one finds the means to extend and transform one's style. It is a very fluid, transformative process. If you lose the passion, concentration, or cease the process, you are unlikely to advance. 

Transformation, 2004. (c) Roger Ballen

Even if one can manage to find a visual signature and make unique work, the onward march toward success is still not an easy one. Commercial photography is hard enough (mostly due to the endless supply of competition), but being an art photographer is that much harder again. But this is a challenge that Ballen confronted head-on. For over five decades Ballen has been working on his craft, building, layering, refining, and rebuilding his aesthetic. Having trained as a painter at the Art Students League of New York in 1973, where Ballen's work was said to have "belonged to the stone age", according to one of his teachers, Ballen forged ahead and, eventually, incorporated those drawings into his now-famous photographs. This was a huge element in his success and a critical component of the Ballenesque aesthetic. Despite this, Ballen still warns the photographer in search of making a living from his craft: 

It was not an easy business being an artist photographer. I commonly state that if you want to be an artist photographer, you should have another profession to support yourself. It is likely to take decades for one's work to be properly appreciated, if at all. 

Ballen acquired his first camera at the age of thirteen. He studied the likes of Andre Kertesz, Paul Strand, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In this way, photography has always been a pursuit for Ballen. Yet, in 1978, Ballen enrolled at the Colorado School of Mines and was admitted to a Ph.D. in mineral economics. As a result of his professional education, Ballen began a business as a mining entrepreneur, which he continued alongside his career as an artist until 2010. No doubt this income source was critical for supporting his work as a photographer through much of his career. Only after several decades are things a lot easier with his print sales now in the four digits. 

Discussion, 2018. (c) Roger Ballen

Whenever I interview a photographer, I always want to know about their gear. It's something we fellow photographers just need to know. So, I asked Roger to tell me about his evolution with the camera. For a long time (1968-1982), he used Nikon cameras and mostly shot with a 28mm lens, something I can appreciate. From 1982 until 2017, he used a Rollei square format camera with either an 80 or 90mm lens, which, even when adjusted for medium format film, represented a considerable narrowing of the field for Ballen. In 2017, Ballen made the "big switch": 

Since 2017 I have used a Leica SL wtih a 35-90 zoom lens. After 50 years of shooting black and white film, I made the transition to digital and color. 

Follower, 2018. (c) Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen's work is an enigma. At first blush, it may look like anyone could do such a thing. I mean, dress up some people, draw on the walls, and then take photographs. If only it were actually this easy. Like William Eggleston's bags of trash or red ceiling, nothing great is easy, despite how pedestrian it may look. Most of us would spend the rest of our lives trying to imitate either Ballen or Eggleston. Ballen's photographs are otherworldly and psychologically charged — they are interesting places, but places we'd rather not end up in. His world is a theater of the absurd. And, his world is still unfolding. 

I cannot begin to guess where my work will take me in the coming years. There is no end to this process.  

Twirling Wires, 2001. (c) Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen's work is a testament to perseverance and commitment. Yes, he is one of the most successful art photographers in the world but he didn't get to this stage in his career overnight or without struggle. The layered complexity of his carnival of the subconscious is the result of decades of willful trial and error and dedication. What we might all learn from Roger Ballen is the art of combining experimentation with patience and persistence. And that art photography is not for the faint of heart. 

Images used with permission.

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1 Comment

Ed Sanford's picture

What a great article. It is reminiscent to what would read in early versions of Lenswork or Aperture. The digital medium, to a large extent, promotes volume over growth. This article demonstrates the difficulty and challenge of becoming an artist.