Roger Ballen Photographer Essay

Roger Ballen’s 1999 photograph “Puppy Between Feet”, which is currently on display at the Eastman House, is an uncommon black and white gelatin silver print from an old Rollei TRL medium format film camera. The print it’s self, which is only 80mm by 80mm, is quite smooth as far as the tones and exposure go. But nevertheless the urban style, slash, still-life idea of Mr. Ballen is so abstract and subjective and so different from his past journalistic style, that it has the tendency to take a person back if not ready. As one looks at the print it’s apparent, and almost overpowering, that what they are looking at is dirty, coarse, unkempt feet.

At a closer inspection of the feet one can see that the toenails are so encrusted with god knows what, that it looks almost painful. It even seems if one would look at the left foot they would see there is a toe missing. But enough about feet, let’s move on to the very adolescent puppy in the middle of the unseen person’s feet. Because the dog is so young, it’s eyes are not yet open which could make one speculate that the puppy might be deceased. Holding the puppy into position between the feet is a hand, most likely belonging to the obscured man under the blanket.

When taking a closer look at the hand one would probably observe that unlike the nails of the toes, the fingernails of this person seems more clean and taken care of, strange. This small observation could make a viewer wonder if there is a second person in the picture under the blanket, or whatever, holding the little creature. The speculation of the person or person’s identity then brings the eye to the covers that were used to conceal the body. The covers, or what look to be like covers, are obviously on top of the man, and have a very abrasive look and texture to them.

While the pillow, or again something that looks like a pillow, I don’t know for sure, seems to have much less texture. But both are very dingy and have a way of cutting the frame horizontally making a horizon of even a starting point sorts. Like I said before, Roger Ballen’s work is being shown in Eastman’s Bracket Clark Gallery. The walls are painted a brownish color, while the title and date of the work is in small white font next to his labor. There isn’t much else about the print, information wise in the gallery. But while walking around a person can hear Roger give a small interview about his photograph.

These sounds are coming from a large screen that one can sit or stand at if they want to pay absolute attention to the interview. When it comes to the compositional arrangement of “Puppy Between Feet” the layout of the photo is actually very symmetrical. If someone was to cut the focus of the image right down the middle you would totally have the same photo, and that is definitely symmetry. But with the subject center posed in the picture, there is some empty space in each corner of the image and a large shadow from a flash on the right hand side.

But because of the slight depth of field that Roger used in this photo it makes the background a little out of focus and definitely deviates what should be the main point of the picture. Some formal elements that make up the composition of the work would have to be the feet, of course, the line that is made by the blanket and pillow, and the puppy. Starting with the horizontal line that is used in the piece, it, without a doubt, helps bring the viewers eyes to the main focus of the photo.

And when the observer reaches the center of attention they are going to notice that the grotesque feet have been placed there to frame, or possibly protect, the innocent or innocence of the puppy, which I consider is creating a metaphor of sorts. When talking about Roger Ballen’s style, it is said to reach psychological subjectivism; a walking dream in photographic form which was a totally different idea of what was so called popular photograph in 1999. Annie Leibovitz, in 1999, was the most influential photographer at that time and Roger was going in a total different direction with his models and photographs.

While Leibovitz was shooting American celebrities with large budgets, Roger was is in an unstable South Africa, a country that was in the middle of a presidential change, shooting poverty stricken people. People that have been prevented from having any power or attention, which I thought make the photographs even more unforgettable and raw. The photographic community has alleged that Ballen’s subject matter consists of the human figure as well as visual integration of complex layered metaphoric imagery.

A person can see this same subject matter slightly in Ballen’s “Puppy Between Feet” just by the way he has positioned the puppy around the feet and in all his latest photos. Roger Ballen has been living in South Africa since 1970. While there he has seen what the apartheid did to the country of South Africa. He had also witnessed the freedom of Nelson Mandela, and had the opportunity of watching him become president of the very same country that had imprisoned him. But in 1999 during the time he shot “Puppy Between Feet” Ballen observed another governmental change.

In 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down from the presidency of South Africa and Thabo Mbeki became just the 2nd president after the collapse of the apartheid. But because of continued poverty and unemployment Mbeki was forced to resign from presidency of South Africa. It’s obvious Roger Ballen saw these poverty stricken people and felt that in his art, in his own way, he could communicate that even though the apartheid was over there are those people who still suffer, especially white people who were said to be inferior during the apartheid, in South Africa.

You know I chose this photo from 73 other Roger Ballen photographs at the Eastman Gallery. And it’s not just because the composition was incredible or the print quality was immaculate, it’s because I saw something in that photo that I am doing to myself. You see while I was studying the image I felt two viewpoints. The first was; I was the puppy being held ever so gently. Which I believed translated to being held by friends and family. But while they’re holding me I’m being surrounded by the utter chaos and mess of my surroundings.

Then at times I would still see myself as the puppy but this time being surrounded by what I made in my life, which again was disarray. I swear it was so strange looking at that photograph because at one point it almost felt like the photo I chose actually selected me, which has never happened before. Anyway when it came looking through the Art History Volume One text it was hard to find something to compare and contrast with “Puppy Between Feet”, but what I did choose, “She Wolf” by Museo Capitolino of Rome, is something that I believe almost depicted the same overall feeling felt with Roger Ballen’s photograph.

But unlike the Ballen piece I selected which is a picture, “She Wolf” is a sculpture, made of bronze and is actually a 3D image, while my photograph is just 2D. Although I did spot when it comes to the color of them both they are very much gray toned. I also see in both that each artist had a smooth way of showing art but when it comes to actual texture I believe Roger Ballen represented it better even though in his photograph a person can’t actually feel the texture.

Lastly I consider that both of these works are abstract in their own unique way. So you see even though pieces of art can be two totally different mediums and made at two totally different times doesn’t mean that they can’t produce a same correlation. In conclusion I had a great time doing this project. I always enjoy going out and finding new works of art and this time I even found a great new photographer that I’m actually going to meet later in the week. So like Georgia O’Keeffe said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”.