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George Eastman House presents contemporary work of Roger Ballen Feb. 27 - June 6

Ballen is known for thought-provoking photography, controversial artistic vision; one critic said photographs are “like images from a waking dream”Rochester, N.Y., February 16, 2010—This winter George Eastman House presents an exhibition

Rochester, N.Y., February 16, 2010—This winter George Eastman House presents an exhibition of photographs by contemporary, and often controversial, artist Roger Ballen. The 74 black-and-white images of this mini-retrospective, titled Roger Ballen: Photographs 1982-2009, will be on display Feb. 27-June 6, 2010. Eastman House will travel the exhibition worldwide following its Rochester run. 

Ballen is known for his thought-provoking photography and his particular attention to rich detail, photographing his human and animal subjects in complex, fictional scenes filled with symbolism. Critics have called Ballen’s images powerful social statements that at the same time are disturbing psychological studies.

“Ballen’s work encourages viewers to step outside of their understanding of reality in a photograph, challenging them to assess things differently,” said Dr. Anthony Bannon, director of George Eastman House. “With this exhibition we are inviting our audience to consider, both personally and community-wide, art outside the comfort zone.”

Ballen's unique artistic vocabulary, which he composes using a square format, creates visual ambiguities as universal metaphors of the human condition. For Ballen, standard divisions as subject, object, motif and background are elusive. In his visually complex tableaux, Ballen forgoes a strictly documentary approach and casts further doubt on their veracity, intervening to alter each room, and collaborating directly with the subject to create the sculptures and drawings that appear in the photographs.

Aperture Magazine described his work as “images from a waking dream; compelling and surrealistic with sparkles of dark humor,” and Australia’s Artlink Magazine said they are “freeze-frame images stolen from the sub-conscious … Ballen’s bizarre tableaux are an illustration of the real world.”

The Eastman House exhibition showcases selections from Ballen’s major photographic projects, but the majority of the show exhibits work from his two most recent series, Shadow Chamber (2002-2004) and his latest project, Boarding House (2004-2008). Boarding House shows an imaginary space of transient residence, of coming and goings, of people sheltering in a strange place they are using for their immediate survival, furnished with objects that are necessarily for an elementary existence as well as mysterious items whose significance is impossible to discern. In the theme of his other photography projects, Boarding House emphasizes the absence of human presence and shows obscured bodies, animals and hand-drawn faces whose minimal identifying characteristics initiate an immediate, visceral response. “It is difficult to explain this place,” Ballen said, “except that I think it exists in some way or another in most people's mind.”

In reviewing Ballen’s work, American Photo noted his “rich, penetrating vision” and that he has “developed a style of image-making that is firmly rooted in the documentary tradition of the great mid-century storytellers.” Art in America called his photographs “Stark, visceral images that hark back to vintage Walker Evans and also have some of the surreal strangeness of Diane Arbus’s portraits of social misfits.” 


Roger Ballen, 60, was born in New York City and has lived and worked in Johannesburg, South Africa, for almost 30 years. His interest in photography dates to when his mother worked as a photo editor with Magnum Photos in New York, and teenager Ballen befriended the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, and Elliott Erwitt.

For many years Ballen worked as a geologist while documenting the small villages of rural South Africa and their isolated inhabitants. Ballen’s book Outland was named Best Photographic Book of the Year at PhotoEspaña 2001, in Madrid, Spain. He won the Photographer of the Year Award at the inaugural Rencontres d’Arles Awards in 2002. Over the past few years Ballen has had well over 100 exhibitions worldwide, including solo shows at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, New York’s Gagosian Gallery, and Toronto's Clint Roenisch Gallery.